Asylum system flooded but deportations slow to a trickle

Deportations of failed asylum-seekers have dried up as new arrivals flood the system in record numbers, causing a backlog the opposition warns will take a decade to clear.

Despite calls by foreign governments, including Sri Lanka, to return bogus refugees as a deterrent, fewer than 2 per cent of the 21,000 asylum-seekers who have arrived since 2008 have been deported. Head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Australia Richard Towle said yesterday that there must be “meaningful consequences” for asylum-seekers whose refugee claims failed, arguing returns were essential to the integrity of any asylum system.

“You need a fair and accurate asylum process that identifies refugees and the return of those who don’t need protection,” he told The Australian. “The overall integrity of the asylum system needs both of those in play – the rights given to those who are refugees and the return of those who are not. Without returns, the integrity of the whole system is undermined.”

The comments follow a new record in boat arrivals, with the number of asylum-seekers arriving in the first seven months of this year exceeding the previous record of 6555 arrivals for all of 2010.

Compounding the opposition’s warnings of a system backlog, a further two boats carrying 89 asylum-seekers and crew members were intercepted by Customs’ boats near Cocos Islands and Christmas Island yesterday. A spokeswoman for Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said the passengers would be transferred to Christmas Island.

The surge has prompted the opposition to issue a stark warning about the legacy issues confronting the Coalition, should it win office at the next election.

Coalition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison predicted there could be between 10,000 and 15,000 asylum-seekers still in the system by next year, a bottleneck that could take a decade to clear the courts. “The system the government has been running means that by the time of the next election we could be looking at 10,000-15,000 people in the system, which could take a decade to resolve,” he said.

“It’s a significant problem. We won’t be in a position to be able to assess the full impact of this until we are closer to an election.”

The warning drew a rebuke from Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, with a spokesman for the minister accusing the Coalition of hypocrisy.

“The only way there will be a large backlog of asylum claims before the court will be if the Coalition and the Greens continue to vote against offshore processing,” the spokesman said.

“Mr Morrison cannot have it both ways: he cannot straight-faced complain about the costs of onshore processing and then stop the government reintroducing offshore processing.”

According to Immigration Department figures, fewer than 1.5 per cent of asylum-seekers who have arrived in Australia since 2008 have been returned.

Since the boats started coming in 2008, more than 20,700 asylum-seekers have arrived, but only 284 have been returned. Only 16 have been removed against their will. This year 22 people have been removed, compared with 74 last year.

In January last year, Mr Bowen unveiled an agreement between Australia, Afghanistan and the UNHCR that he promised would pave the way for the forced return of failed Afghan asylum-seekers, a process he predicted would begin by the end of this year. “There is now a mechanism to return people and people will be returned, I’m sure, during the course of this year where it is appropriate to do so,” Mr Bowen said at the time.

But 18 months after the pledge, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canberra, Nasir Ahmad Andisha, admitted not one Afghan had been forcibly returned.

Asked whether the MOU had facilitated the return of any failed Afghan asylum-seekers, he said: “No, not yet.” He also repeated Afghanistan’s opposition to forced returns, saying Kabul’s preference was for voluntary, dignified returns that occurred at a pace that allowed the republic to cope.

The government’s job of returning failed asylum-seekers was made considerably more difficult by the High Court, which in November 2010 gave boatpeople the same appeal rights as onshore asylum-seekers. According to the government, that meant all decisions made before the November ruling had to be rechecked, slowing the returns process.

Currently, there are more than 10,400 asylum-seekers either in detention or living in the community whose refugee claims have yet to be finalised. With the rate of boat arrivals accelerating rapidly, more asylum-seekers are entering the system than leaving it.

Mr Towle said those who were found not to be refugees should be sent home in a safe and dignified manner. He said while removals could be difficult, controversial and painful, they should not, as a matter or principle, be opposed. “You won’t find the UNHCR standing in the way of it.”

He said there must be “meaningful consequences” for those who were not found to be refugees.

“If everybody who comes and claims asylum is allowed to stay, then of course the asylum system is undermined,” he said.

Sri Lanka, which has once again become a major source of boatpeople, has said deportations act as a powerful deterrent and has called on Canberra to return Sri Lankans whose refugee claims have been unsuccessful.

Paul Maley and Lauren Wilson

From: The Australian , July 31, 2012

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