Kevin Andrews’ comments in today’s Age about the long delay in processing eight Burmese asylum seekers on Nauru won’t help to dispel the cries of incompetency that continue to dog the Immigration Minister. The minister has confused an independent UN refugee agency with a senior member of his own departmental staff.

As Andrews sticks to his guns on the Sudanese issue, there’s that other small matter of the massacre unfolding in Burma, and the Burmese asylum seekers that remain detained on Nauru after over a year. In today’s Age, Andrews explains that one of the eight Burmese asylum seekers has voluntarily returned to Malaysia:

“He is in the process of being assessed by the UNHCR and I expect an answer soon,” Mr Andrews said.

But Crikey has been told that this is incorrect. “The processing of the asylum seeker’s case in Malaysia is not being undertaken by the UNHCR,” David Manne of the Refugee & Immigration Legal Centre and acting lawyer for the eight men, told Crikey.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox

By submitting this form you are agreeing to Crikey's Terms and Conditions.

“The UNHCR are not responsible for the assessment of his refugee application. The processing of his case is being undertaken by a senior Australian immigration official — based at the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur — who is operating under a delegated power from the Minister for Immigration under Australian law.”

The Burmese Rohingya man who “returned to Malaysia felt he literally had no option left but to return to Malaysia to rescue his two young children who face imminent abandonment and further risk to their safety and well-being. He remains in an extremely precarious situation,” says Manne. “He lodged an application for a refugee visa to Australia with the Department of Immigration on 15 October 2006 when he was in Nauru. That is, almost one year ago. He still has no decision from the Department of Immigration on his refugee visa application as far as we know.”

Andrews had a dig at the Burmese men’s lawyers in The Age:

“One of the difficulties is the lawyers for the seven on Nauru seem to have been not in a great hurry to get these matters dealt with,” he said.

He added that if the men could have had their “refugee claims expedited if they had agreed to return to Malaysia…” But Manne points out that Malaysia, along with Burma, is extremely dangerous for the men.  

“They’re seeking refugee protection from persecution in Malaysia as well as Burma, all the independent evidence is that Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN refugees convention. That is has one of the worst records in the world for mistreatment of refugees, Malaysia routinely deports Burmese refugees to Thailand or directly to Burma and the real risk of persecution.”

“Let’s get the facts straight. It took action by our clients in the High Court of Australia in May to get the processing of their cases started,” says Manne. “The Minister and the Government completely caved and conceded our clients’ case in the High Court that their applications for refugee visas be processed under the established Australian legal rules – the rule of law in Australia…But those visa applications, lodged one year ago, have still not been decided. Our clients, who remain on Nauru, still do not have decisions on their cases.”  

The challenging area of Immigration is a highly sensitive portfolio. But Andrews’ recent comments about Sudanese integration have prompted commentators like Michelle Grattan to hover between two different theories: either Andrews is dog whistling at the expense of his portfolio, or he doesn’t understand his portfolio. 

Hard to say which theory is worse.

Crikey went to the minister’s office for a comment, but they didn’t get back to us before deadline. Crikey also contacted Shadow Immigration Spokesperson Tony Burke’s office for a comment but they didn’t get back in time either.