In an item redolent with irrelevant gossip from bygone eras, one-sided political claims and a view of Australian history as seen through a particular ideological prism, Jeff Sparrow, was unable to cite one instance where ASIO assessments of refugees have been improper or incorrect, nor was he able to demonstrate that security screening of refugees is somehow unjustified, illogical or immoral.

Moreover, those of Sparrow’s ideological bent heartily criticised ASIO for many years for its part in the supposed poor screening of post-World War II refugees and immigrants with fascist or Nazi records.

The bottom line is that some security screening of those entering Australia, whether as refugees, immigrants or visitors, is clearly required. Not least because we all live in a globalised society and economy, we cannot somehow quarantine Australia from the rest of the world by total exclusion of travel, and there are at least some foreigners who seek to enter Australia with ill intent.

With regard to asylum seeking, Australia remains one of only seven countries between the  Aegean and Arafura seas that are signatories to the 1951 Convention and we are the only first-world liberal democracy (and country of mass settlement) among them. The legal and moral dilemmas of our situation are complex and nuanced. Just what can you do, for example, when a claimant for asylum turns out to be a serious violator of international humanitarian law (IHL) and likely to remain so?

Sparrow’s further claim that receiving information from foreign governments is automatically an example of malign influence by such a government is simplistic nonsense. Obviously most of the information on foreigners coming to Australia has to come from somewhere overseas. But equally obviously the views of foreign governments are weighted accordingly, depending on their reliability and rule-of-law standards. Information from anywhere in a dictatorship (or compromised democracy such as Sri Lanka) is obviously treated with much more scepticism than information provided legitimately, in accordance with international law and UN processes, by the police force or security intelligence agency of a fellow liberal democracy that respects IHL.

Finally, the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka again highlights serious problems with applying the 1951 Refugee Convention and its underlying concepts to today’s realities. Both sides in this war disobeyed international humanitarian law but the Tamil Tigers were much guiltier in this regard. Despite the propaganda emanating from Tiger sympathisers among Australia’s Tamil community, the Sri Lankan government is fully entitled to screen the population of areas previously controlled, viciously, by the Tigers in order to segregate Tiger combatants and committed supporters of terrorism.

As long as such screening and detention meets IHL norms, it does not qualify as persecution in terms of the 1951 Refugee Convention. With appropriate safeguards, returning committed violators of IHL to Sri Lanka for criminal trial or temporary detention under the Laws of Armed Conflict is not necessarily a breach of the non-refoulement principle governing the treatment of asylum seekers or even refugees. As understandably no other Convention signatory seems willing to accept serious IHL violators, the imperfect but necessary alternative of administratively detaining them indefinitely in Australia, as it stretches into years, ends up being improper and eventually even inhumane.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey