The federal government must not use the revised UN assessment of security in Sri Lanka to push for a blanket approach to the claims of asylum seekers, a leading refugee lawyer has warned.

In delivering a new set of border protection policies to the Lowy Institute today, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the immediate lifting of the suspension freeze on Sri Lankan asylum visas.

David Manne, from the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, told Crikey that while the policy reversed a “fundamentally unlawful and unjust policy”, the federal government needed to be wary of how they now assess Sri Lankan asylum seekers.

“What’s crucial is that the government does not seize upon the revised UNHCR conditions to make superficial and dangerously premature judgements that it is safe to send Sri Lankans back home,” he said. “That’s not what the guidelines say, they urge great caution and a case-by-case assessment.”

The lifting of the processing freeze comes after an amendment to UNHCR guidelines for assessing asylum seekers, which reports the security situation in Sri Lanka has “greatly improved”:

“In light of the improved human rights and security situation in Sri Lanka, there is no longer a need for group-based protection mechanisms or for a presumption of eligibility for Sri Lankans of Tamil ethnicity originating from the north of the country.”

Gillard also revealed the government was in talks with East Timor to establish a processing centre for asylum seekers in the region. While Manne believes in regional cooperation he is also wary the policy could revisit the ‘Pacific Solution’ advocated by the Howard government.

“As always, the devil will be in the detail,” he told Crikey. “If this new policy is to move beyond a Pacific Solution Mark II some fundamental elements need to be assessed.

“People need to be housed in safe and humane conditions, they need to be provided with a fair process for the consideration of their protection claims and they need to be guaranteed resettlement to safety within a reasonable period.”

Opposition leader Tony Abbott also delivered more details on the Coalition’s policy this morning. Manne was scathing about Abbott’s pledge to return offshore processing and temporary protection visas, as well as his rhetoric around the turning back of boats.

“This is a radical regression to the failed policies of the past,” said Manne.

“We know the profound harm that those policies caused to thousands of innocent people. It amounts to a conscious decision to reintroduce policies which they know cause pain and suffering to vulnerable people including women, children and families,” he said.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey