Canberra, Australia, Dec 10, 2014 / 04:06 am
The Australian bishops' office for migrants and refugees has termed "unethical" legislation signed into law last week that gives the national government unprecedented powers to deal toughly with asylum seekers.
The Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014 was narrowly passed in the Australian senate Dec. 5, and then passed the house of representatives by a wide margin.
The new legislation allows Australian officials to redefine who is classified as a refugee, and allows them to push any asylum seeker boat back into the sea, leaving it there.
According to the new amendments in the act, the government can block an asylum seeker, detain people without charge, or deport them, and these decisions cannot be challenged.
Fr. Maurizio Pettena, director of the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office, accused the Government of "bartering children to secure passage of Amendments to Australia's Immigration Act" and characterized this as a "new all time low for Australian politics."
To gain support for the legislation from crossbenchers, immigration minister Scott Morrison promised to release hundreds of children who are in immigration detention on Christmas Island, located in the Indian Ocean near Indonesia.
"Not only is the content of this bill unethical, but equally so is the nature in which it has been conducted by the Immigration Minister," Fr. Pettena continued.
"Children were bartered to secure this deal."
Fr. Pettena said that "when a government lowers its policies to essentially bargaining vulnerable people for political gain, it raises questions about our morality as a people. Having children detained in the first instance was not an acceptable option."
The priest welcomed Morrison's proposal to release approximately 100 children from Christmas Island before Dec. 25, and the agreement to raise the humanitarian intake – the law means Australia will accommodate an additional 5,000 refugees by 2018, compared to what the current Labor Party government had planned.
Under the previous government, led by the Labor Party, 20,000 humanitarian visas were issued annually. The Liberal Party, elected in 2013, had reduced this figure to 13,750. The Liberal Party's new accommodation is thus for 1,250 fewer refugees annually, than were welcomed by Labor.
"Many questions about the implementation of this bill remain unanswered," said Fr. Pettena.
Morrison has promised that the more than 25,000 refugees currently living on mainland Australia on bridging visas will be given the right to work and support themselves.
Other measures introduced in the bill include the reintroduction of temporary protection visas allowing asylum seekers to work and study. This visa will not provide a pathway to permanency nor allow family reunification, however, meaning asylum seekers' lives will remain in a state of insecurity and anxiety, the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office said.
The bill also allows the government to detain asylum seekers and classify them as fast track refugee status. Asylum seekers arriving by boat illegally will have no access to the Refugee Review Tribunal, but will be sent to Immigration Assessment Authority and will not get a hearing.
"In practise it means that the government will remain unchecked and unchallenged in its decision-making," the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office noted.
"Under the recently passed legislation it empowers the Government to overwrite the internationally accepted definition by the United Nations Refugee Convention, despite Australia being a signatory to the Convention."
The convention on refugees forbids the repatriation of refugees and asylum seekers if there is as little as a 10 percent chance they will be persecuted or tortured in their home country.
Australia's new law bypasses this principle, saying that asylum seekers and refugees can be returned when the risk of persecution, torture, or death is as high as 50 percent, because for the government "it is irrelevant whether Australia has non-refoulement obligations in respect of an unlawful non-citizen."
Many of those seeking asylum in Australia come from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, and Iran, travelling by boat from Indonesia. They are typically intercepted by the Australian navy before reaching land, and are then sent to detention camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, a small Micronesian nation.
The conditions at the camps have been condemned by Church leaders and human rights groups; in February, an Iranian asylum seeker was murdered and 77 were injured at Papua New Guinea's Manus Island detention center. More than 2,100 are held in the camps, which have been affected by violence, sexual assault, and suicide attempts.
Australia recently reached an agreement with Cambodia to resettle some asylum seekers in the southeast Asian country.