Bowen defends decision to return Sri Lankans
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen says the decision to return a group of Sri Lankans who arrived on an asylum seeker boat earlier this week will help undermine the people smuggling trade.
He says the group did not make a genuine claim for refugee status and were flown back to Sri Lanka on a charter flight from Christmas Island last night.
The case has raised concerns among refugee advocates about how asylum seekers are dealt with when they first arrive and whether they are given a meaningful opportunity to make a claim.
Mr Bowen has declined to say what reasons the 26 Sri Lankans gave for travelling to Australia by boat, but says the humanitarian program is not designed to deal with economic refugees.
“They did not make any case, any claims which meant Australia had any international obligation to them,” Mr Bowen told reporters in Sydney.
“The action that we’re taking is sending the clearest possible message that Australia will not accept economic refugees through our refugee program.
“We will not have people who do not have genuine claims to make going through our system.
“The action that we’re taking is sending the clearest possible message that people smugglers are lying.”
But former Commonwealth ombudsman Allan Asher, who has been an outspoken critic of the Government’s border protection policy, says the new approach effectively strips people of their legal rights.
He says it goes against Australia’s international obligations if there is not a proper review of all refugee claims.
“When I was ombudsman, I complained to the Minister about this, that departmental officials who misled people as to the status of their rights and ability to appeal,” Mr Asher told ABC radio.
“I fear that inhuman things are happening, and injustices are happening, in a country where we just don’t need to be doing this.”
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young says asylum seekers are put through an initial screening interview when they first arrive in Australia, but she is concerned they are not given access to an independent advocate to help them with that process.
“Unless the person who is there to seek asylum actually says they are there to seek asylum and they want to invoke the rights under the Refugee Convention… (then) the Australian personnel who are… conducting that interview don’t actually have to offer the opportunity for somebody to seek asylum,” Senator Hanson-Young said.
“In this case, it’s not that the Australian Government has done anything wrong, but it is worrying to see people who have made such a long and dangerous journey to Australia… not being able to be screened in to have their case put.”
Lawyer and refugee advocate Jessie Taylor believes there needs to be more transparency about how that initial screening process is carried out.
“Were these people given a meaningful opportunity to exercise the rights that might trigger Australia’s international obligations?”
“Were they given access to culturally appropriate interpreters?
“Were they given access to lawyers and legal advice?
“Where they a full understanding of their right to seek asylum?”
Despite the Government’s move to implement the recommendations of the expert panel on asylum seekers, boats continue to arrive in Australian water.
A boat carrying 57 asylum seekers was intercepted north-west of Ashmore Islands on Thursday, a further sign Labor’s policies are not working, the Opposition says.
“The people smugglers are so emboldened by the Government’s actions over the last four years that it is difficult to see that the Labor Party will ever be able to have the required credibility to halt this criminal activity,” Opposition border protection spokesman Michael Keenan said in a statement.
By chief political correspondent Simon Cullen