NEW DELHI (AlertNet) - Australia’s decision to suspend processing asylum claims from Sri Lankans and Afghans is “inhumane” and will encourage other nations to turn away those seeking refuge from violence or persecution at home, aid workers said on Friday.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s government, under pressure in an election year to halt the arrival of boatpeople on the country’s remote northwest coast, announced last week it was suspending new asylum claims from war-ravaged Afghanistan and Sri Lanka for six and three months respectively.
Officials said the policy was based on the improved security situation in both nations and was intended to “send a message” to people-smugglers who organise and profit from the ramshackle boats that bring the asylum seekers via countries like Indonesia.
But aid workers and human rights groups have slammed the decision, saying both Sri Lanka and Afghanistan remain hostile environments.
“The situation on the ground in both Afghanistan and Sri Lanka continues to be of grave concern,” Elisabeth Rasmusson, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), told AlertNet.
“Punishing individual asylum seekers - by detaining them rather than processing their claims - to fight people-smugglers is inhumane. This cannot be the strategy governments choose to deal with forced migration and refugees.”
The arrival of hundreds of mostly Afghans and Sri Lankans, who pay large sums of money to make the perilous journey on rickety boats, has stoked public concern about Australia’s border security laws in recent years. More than 1,600 asylum seekers arrived on the northwest coast in 2009.
Many Afghans are fleeing a conflict between insurgents and NATO-led security forces, while Sri Lankans fled in the final years of a 25-year-old civil war between Tamil separatists and government forces.
Aid workers and rights activists say that despite the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May last year, many Tamils still fear persecution.
“Any aid worker would agree that there are still reasons - legitimate security reasons - in both these countries to want to flee and seek refuge and protection,” said one aid worker.
“Genuine asylum-seekers will be unfairly treated as a result of this decision.”
Rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say the suspension contradicts the 1951 Refugee Convention which Australia has signed and which obliges countries to provide individuals with an opportunity to claim asylum and examine their refugee claims.
Others fear the message Australia is sending to other countries.
“New refugee arrivals are rarely popular, and governments in our region and around the world are often looking for new ways to minimise their obligations and push people back - directly or indirectly,” said Alistair Gee, executive director of Act for Peace, the international aid agency of the National Council of Churches in Australia.
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, says it is examining the possible effects of the Australian suspension on vulnerable asylum seekers in detention and their access to support services. Asylum seekers who arrive in Australian waters by boat are sent to Christmas Island pending examination of the claims. Those who arrive by plane or overstay their visas on the Australian mainland are not detained.
The agency says, like with other countries, it will continue to assess and review the security situation in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. In the coming months, it plans to issue revised guidelines for assessing whether Sri Lankan asylum-seekers require international protection.
“UNHCR believes that all asylum-seekers and refugees should be treated humanely and given the opportunity to have any claims for protection fairly assessed,” said UNHCR’s spokeswoman Melissa Fleming.