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Australia Faces Backlash Over Freeze on Accepting Refugees from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan

  • Phil Mercer

Australia could face legal action over its decision to suspend processing asylum claims from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. The government says that security in both countries is improving and asylum seekers are increasingly being sent home.

Australia's Labor government says Sri Lanka and Afghanistan have become more secure in recent months. As a result, asylum applications from those countries will now be frozen for up to six months.

The move will not affect asylum seekers currently in Australia but will apply to new arrivals. And it will not affect those coming from other countries.

Refugee advocates are considering taking the government to court, arguing the decision violates Australia's international obligations.

Human Rights Commissioner Cathy Branson is among them.

"We think there's a real risk that it is discriminating against groups of people based on their country of origin," Branson said. "The Australian Human Rights Commission is fearful that it will lead to breaches of Australia's international human rights obligations. In particular our obligation under the Refuges Convention not to treat groups of people differently based on their country of origin and our general obligation not to discriminate."

Since Kevin Rudd's government took office in 2007, more than 100 boats carrying illegal migrants have arrived in Australian waters. Afghans and Sri Lankans make up more than half of them.

The freeze on new asylum applications from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan accompanies new measures to combat the criminal gangs that traffic illegal immigrants to Australia.

Prominent refugee lawyer David Mann thinks the freeze will not cut the number of boatpeople heading to Australia.

"It's not an effective mechanism in relation to people who, at the end of the day, are fleeing from brutality to save their lives," Mann said. "This strategy in so far as it is designed to avoid obligations currently owed, flies in the face of our obligations, our international obligations, to properly assess refugee claims at the time they're made."

Sam Pari from the National Tamil Congress, an organization of Tamil immigrants in Australia, says freezing asylum applications will not deter those desperate to escape mistreatment in Sri Lanka.

"They obviously would rather live in their own land, live in their country of birth and live with their family in a place that they call home," said Pari. "So for them, these changes, these announcements, make very little difference because when they do choose to flee Sri Lanka on a boat to a foreign land it's because they have resorted to the last option that they have. And I don't think such announcements will make a difference when someone is trying to save their own life."

The Australian government says it is putting a hold the processing of refugee claims by Afghan and Sri Lankan migrants until the United Nations completes new asylum protection guidelines for both countries.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans says improving security in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka is likely to result in more asylum seekers being repatriated in the future.

"Evolving country information from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan is likely to have a significant effect on the outcome of assessments as to whether asylum seekers have a well founded fear of persecution within the meaning of the refugees' convention," Evans said. "The likelihood of people being refused visas and being returned safely to their homelands will increase. The government will review the situation in Sri Lanka after a period of three months and in Afghanistan after a period of six months."

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith says recent elections in Sri Lanka are signs that the nation is stabilizing following the end of a long civil war.

Smith thinks that Afghanistan too is becoming less hostile for minority groups that had previously suffered discrimination.

"There was a time, indeed until quite recently there was a time when if you were an Afghan Hazara then you almost automatically fell within the provisions of the refugee convention," said Smith. "With the fall of the Taliban, with better security in parts of Afghanistan, with constitutional and legal change and reform, it is not now automatically the case that just because you are an Hazara Afghan that you automatically fall within the provisions of the convention."

Australia's conservative opposition accuses the government of losing control of the country's borders through more relaxed immigration rules, a charge the government denies. Some political analysts say it is possible the Labor government decided on the freeze to remove the sensitive issue of illegal immigration ahead of a federal election due later this year.

Australia annually takes in more than 10,000 refugees a year through international humanitarian programs.