An Australian Navy crew is seen in a search and rescue operation involving a vessel carrying asylum seekers about 148km (92 miles) southeast of Christmas Island on April 8, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

(New York) - The Australian government should reverse its decision to suspend the processing of new asylum applications from Sri Lankan and Afghan nationals, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Immigration Minister Chris Evans today.

Human Rights Watch said that the new policy, announced on April 8, 2010, fails to recognize the serious threats to security for certain groups in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka and violates Australia's obligations under international law not to discriminate in the treatment of refugees.

"The Australian government shouldn't cherry-pick among nationalities when deciding whose refugee claims get heard," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Australia should be setting a positive example for refugee protection in the region, not undermining international standards."

The Australian government said it would suspend new asylum applications from Afghans for a period of six months and from Sri Lankans for a period of three months, in an apparent effort to deter unauthorized arrivals by boat.

Human Rights Watch said that the blanket suspension of all applications from nationals of specific countries is discriminatory under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, to which Australia is a party. Even if human rights conditions have improved in a country of origin, Australia is still obligated to provide individuals with an opportunity to claim asylum and to examine their refugee claims.

In the cases of Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, however, Human Rights Watch's research shows that human rights conditions are far from stable or adequate, and that individuals and certain groups continue to face significant threats and to lack effective protection. For instance, women and girls, ethnic and religious minorities, media workers, civil society activists, opposition party members and supporters, and alleged militants may be at risk of persecution in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

In the letter, Human Rights Watch said the April 8 announcement about suspending asylum procedures alongside an announcement of enhanced measures to stop the crime of "people smuggling" implied criminality on the part of asylum seekers.

"Individuals under threat in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan sometimes have no choice but to turn to smugglers to escape persecution," Pearson said. "While smuggling is a crime, the Australian government seems to confuse smuggling with asylum, tarring the victims with the stigma of crimes committed against them."

Human Rights Watch noted that in 2008 the then-new Labor government initially made good on its election promises to protect the rights of refugees. But over the past two years, the government has changed course. Today, asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat remain subjected to mandatory detention, Christmas Island's detention centers are again filled with asylum seekers, and now newly arriving Afghan and Sri Lankan boat people, including children, will be made to endure the hardship of additional months of detention, regardless of the merits of their refugee claims.

"In the heat of an election year, the Rudd administration is choosing politically expedient refugee bashing over the principles of refugee protection," Pearson said. "It is a sorry reflection on Australian public opinion that the government thinks it must discriminate against Afghan and Sri Lankan refugees in the hope of winning votes."