Asylum-seeker secrecy borders on inhumane

Tony Abbott believes Sri Lanka is a nation “at peace”. He conceded on Thursday that the country has been through a “horrific civil war”, but that it has ended.

He doesn’t mention the 100,000 dead, half of them civilians. He doesn’t mention the child soldiers or the women used as human shields. 

Nor does he mention the Tamil civilians reportedly driven into “no-fire” zones and shelled by the government in the final stages of the conflict. Certainly, he doesn’t mention the torture Tamils still fear, the people who have simply disappeared.

What he will say is this: “Sri Lanka is not everyone’s idea of the ideal society but … I believe that there has been a lot of progress when it comes to human rights and the rule of law in Sri Lanka.”

Abbott made these observations against messy accusations of refoulement – the forcible return of refugees to the state from which they are fleeing. The prime minister was not cowed: “We said before the election that one of the policy options that we reserve the right to use, were it safe to do so, is turning boats around.”

Leaving aside the practical inhumanity of turning back boats, returning refugees to Indonesia is somewhat different to handing boats of fleeing Tamils over to the Sri Lankan navy.

Specifics here are difficult. At time of press the minister for immigration, Scott Morrison, would not even confirm the existence of two asylum-seeker vessels off Christmas Island or the 200-odd souls they were reportedly ferrying. The banality of his language, his confidence that we would know an incident to be “significant” when he told us it was, belied the seriousness of what was being concealed: not just the journey of these desperate people, but their apparent processing on water and alleged return to the oppressors they were attempting to flee.

In the face of government silence – no, contempt – it appears from phone calls made by asylum seekers and reports from Sri Lanka that the Tamils have been assessed by video link and on the basis of four questions rejected for refugee status and herded back to Sri Lanka.

Departmental advice has already determined water processing to be illegal. No advice need be sought to determine the legality or otherwise of refoulement. 

These things, of course, we cannot know for certain. The government will not allow it. But what we do know is simple and appalling: a migration amendment will see potential refugees refused visas if the chance of their abuse at home is less than 50 per cent. As if this callous arithmetic were not enough, a new “national interest test” will empower Morrison to reject permanent residence for any number of reasons, including to preserve voters’ confidence in the state of our borders.

The settlement of refugees is a complex problem. Nobody denies this. But a government bent on secrecy and practices that are at best legally dubious does nothing to make it more simple. Not for Australia, or the few hundred scared Tamils floating off our coast.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 5, 2014 as "Secrecy borders on inhumane".

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