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Feb 22, 2010

Navy leaving asylum seekers in the dark about their final destination

Asylum seekers intercepted by Australian authorities should be informed where they are being taken. But many are still being left in the dark that they are being headed to Christmas Island, writes Pamela Curr.

Asylum seekers intercepted by Australian authorities should be informed where they are being taken. But it seems many are still being left in the dark.

In the wake of the SIEV 36 disaster, the boat that exploded near Ashmore Reef killing five people, processing changes meant informing people about what is going to happen to them and issuing language cards that explain they will be taken to “Australian authorities”. Stephen Walsh QC, counsel assisting the coroner, last week  told the inquiry the changes to how the defence force handles unauthorised arrivals meant coroner Greg Cavanagh need not consider making any recommendations.

I have asked four people from four different boats — rescued by Navy and Customs since the SIEV 36 disaster —  if they were informed about what was happening to them. I asked specifically if they were told that they were being taken to Christmas Island. In each case they said no. The most recent person was rescued in November 2009.

That man has no complaints about his treatment at the hands of Customs, but he reports sitting on the deck of a vessel for three days, apprehensive and anxious. Some among the group believed they must be going to Christmas Island while others worried that they were going back to Indonesia.

It was only when they arrived at Christmas Island that one of the Customs officers said quietly “don’t worry mate, it is Christmas Island”. The question has to be asked — why is it necessary to leave vulnerable people  in total uncertainty after they have been rescued?

I have checked with the most recent arrivals — the practice is still to tell them nothing. This is irrespective of nationality. Some have been aboard Navy boats for up to 11 days floating around not knowing what is going to happen.

I have also checked on the language cards. No one with whom I have spoken, including those from recent boats, has seen these cards in English or in any other language.

Were questions  asked during the coronial inquiry about these changes and, more importantly, their implementation? In essence what the changes are supposed to do is to explain to asylum seekers, at the point of  rescue, exactly where they are going to be taken. Surely questions such as when the cards were printed, how many have since been given out and the content of the cards are essential in light of calls for no recommendations for changes to naval procedures?

Surely the Navy is required to provide proof of its claims that it has changed its procedures in face of an appalling loss of life? Or is it immune from examination.

And why is the content of the cards not being questioned? It is hardly reassuring to asylum seekers to be told “we are going to take you to Australian authorities”. What does this mean?

Indonesia is crawling with “Australian authorities”. The Australian Federal police are everywhere — in Indonesian detention centres and sidling around with the Indonesian military and police. Australia pays the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to record all asylum seeker arrivals. The statement is oblique and confusing at best.

Furthermore, has an independent assessment been made of the translations to ensure that they say what is meant? It would not be the first time an unfortunate choice of words has turned up in translation.

Why do the cards not say “we are taking you to Christmas Island”? This would provide real reassurance. Asylum seekers know what this means. Why are we fudging the destination? Is it because our Prime Minister, like his predecessor, is still hedging his bets on turning boats back if he thinks he can get away with it? Are the decisions regarding the  destination of boats still being made by Prime Minster and cabinet? Is the Navy still hostage to these decisions?

If  the purpose of this coronial inquiry is to determine what happened and how and why deaths took place in an effort to ensure the circumstances leading to loss of life are not repeated, more questions need to be asked. Policy changes must be  put into practice. Asylum seekers must have the right to know where they are being taken and what is going to happen to them.

The Navy and Customs officers are entitled to clear guidelines to make decisions that ensure safety of life at sea (or SOLAS). This sacred duty of  the sea  must be made without reference to politicians thousands of kilometres away in Canberra. No one knows except the participants what happens on the high seas.

It is dangerous territory when you have vulnerable people with no rights in the hands of people with consummate power. Australians need to have trust that the Navy is not being ordered by our government to place lives at risk for political imperatives that breach human rights and the international conventions in the process. The findings and recommendations of this coronial inquiry could provide a basis for this trust.

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17 thoughts on “Navy leaving asylum seekers in the dark about their final destination

  1. Meski

    I don’t know that you can say they have no rights.

    Australia signed the Refugee Convention (the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees) in 1954 and the 1967 Protocol Relating to Refugees, in 1973. The Refugee Convention makes us responsible for ensuring we do not return people to countries where their life or freedom would be threatened by their race, religion, nationality or membership of a social group, or political opinion. Full details of the convention are available from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ website.

  2. Pamela

    In 2001 6 boats were towed back to Indonesia by the Navy at the orders of Prime Minister Howard. No one examined their claims under the Refugee Convention.
    No one listened to their claims that they were refugees.

    Some of those people after waiting 8 years were brought to Australia as refugees.
    Some drowned.
    Some gave up and went back to Iraq and Afghanistan.
    Some died there and were documented.
    Some just disappeared.

    Australia has signed onto the Convention but does this mean anything in the cut and thrust of Canberra politics where refugees on boats are just a tool for verbal warfare between the political parties?

  3. Meski

    I meant they had rights, not that those rights were observed. Perhaps I should have quoted some more from that page? (Amnesty International)

    And now I’ll hit moderation.

  4. Jenny Haines

    Is this another piece of bureaucratic cruelty by uncertainty or are the bureaucrats uncertain themselves until they are given direction on whether the boatload is to stay or be turned around? Just wondering?

  5. Rupert

    Pamela makes some good points but I wonder if the real problem is a reluctance by the Australian Govt, and indeed many governments in Europe, to regularise and facilitate the smooth passage of refugees. In other words, maintain uncertainty and anxiety as a deterrent in an area where numbers are increasing and pressure on governments to take action to reduce those numbers is mounting.

    Harsh as it is, sadly it seems to me that electorates want political solutions rather than humanitarian ones, regardless of conventions and agreements.

  6. Michael James

    Probably because if the Card said “Christmas Island” but they were transferred to another ship which took them somewhere else, be it mainland Australia or somewhere else, it would be taken by their lawyers as being deceitful and grounds for an appeal if they didn’t like the results of the refugee appeal.

    By stating that they are being taken to “Australian Authorities” it is correct, but non-specific, thereby avoiding vexatious claims by lawyers later, in the case that people are taken somewhere besides Christmas Island, which, due to its overcrowding, is almost at capacity, requiring refugees to be relocated somewhere else, such as the Cocus Islands for example.

  7. Scamper

    I wonder how a more specific card could lead to more claims from lawyers? I thought that appeals to the Federal Magistrates Court post-RRT decision were only for challenging an error in the law made by the RRT? Would there be a place in the refugee process that it could become relevant where the refugees thought they were being conveyed? I suppose the cards were made deliberately vague so that they could be used in any situation, but restricting personnel for being more explicit about where refugees are headed does seem to add considerable unnecessary stress to someone already in such a terrible position. Even if the cards did not say exactly where, if this does leave other avenues open for litigation that would worry the government, surely something more explicit than “Australian Authorities” that could be interpreted as being sent back home or to a country such as Indonesia, would be better.

  8. Pamela

    There does seem to be amisunderstanding about Refugee law as some sort of wide ranging infinitely appealable open slather type law. This is Howard Rudd spiel.
    Facts are that a refugee claim is decided on CONVENTION GROUNDS ((Refugee Convention)which are to be fleeing because of a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of
    membership of a particular social group or political opinion,
    is outside the country of his nationality

    Thats it. Not just general fear or becasue of general mayhem but a person has to demonstrate that he or she was targetted in particular on these grounds.
    I am not a lawyer so i will not go into the complexities but i know of no way that the information on acard can alter a decision as to whether a person is a refugee.

  9. Scamper

    While I am not a lawyer either, that is the general understanding that I had as well. The original case for whether the asylum-seeker is entitled to stay in Australia for those reasons set out in the Migration Act is decided by an immigration officer. From there it can be appealed at the RRT, where it can be sent back to DIAC for another hearing. If the case loses at the RRT, it can be heard by the Federal Magistrates Court, who can only hear cases on the grounds of a legal error by the RRT and not on the merits of the case itself. If there is a negative decision also handed down here, the only path left is to appeal to the immigration minister on humanitarian grounds before the asylum-seeker is forcibly removed from the country. As far as I can see from my decidely very non-expert opinion, I dont believe that giving people as much information as possible in a stressful situation could lead to legal wrangling in this system.

    In response to the comments of Meski, “I meant they had rights, not that those rights were observed,”: Is an unobserved right a right at all?

    And yes, whilst Australia is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, this international law is not enforceable in Australian courts unless it is incorporated into Australian legislation. At the moment, you will find that the law regarding refugees is set out in the Migration Act, only by the definition of refugee. However, I believe that this information is also all available on the Amnesty International link you provided. Most of the decision making in regards to the determination of whether someone is a refugee is up to the immigration department and the minister on the grounds of “credibility” and not by following legislative guidelines, as there are none.

  10. Pamela

    Well Scamper for a non lawyer – you sure have aclear and accurate grasp of the whole situation.