The news that 38 of the 66 Sri Lankan asylum seekers who sailed into the Western Australian port of Geraldton last week were immediately “screened out” by immigration officials and flown back to Colombo on an air force jet has highlighted the sometimes confusing nature of the Gillard government’s asylum seeker policy.

The process of “screening out”, not defined in detail in the Migration Act, occurs when officers make a determination based on an initial interview about whether a person is in the country for the genuine purpose of seeking asylum or is an economic migrant looking for a better life.

As Human Rights Law Centre director Rachel Ball wrote last year, “screened out” asylum seekers aren’t subject to a formal assessment under the act to determine their refugee status:

“Instead, they are interviewed with no legal advice, no information about their rights, no transparency and no independent review. The Government appears to be using a quick and dirty process to bypass fundamental human rights protections.”

Last week, Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs unloaded on Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor, describing the “enhanced screening” technique as a clear breach of “non-refoulement” obligations under the UN Convention on Refugees that ban the return of asylum seekers to a country where they may be persecuted.

Migration lawyer Michaela Byers, who first drew attention to these tactics in October, says refugees arriving after August 13 last year — when Angus Houston’s expert panel report was handed down — have been subject to extra-rapid “unlawful” deportations. While screening out has always existed, before last year it was rarely used outside airport customs halls.

Byers says 800 asylum seekers, mostly from Sri Lanka, were returned in the last third of 2012 as bipartisan rhetoric on boat people hardened. Many never saw a lawyer and were tipped out within 24 hours.

“Whole boats can now be turned around … The department’s just gone feral, they seem to think they’ve got the confidence now to behave that way,” she told Crikey.

Byers says if asylum seekers fail to say certain keywords on arrival, customs or immigration officials will ask questions like “did you come to Australia to work?” or “did you come to Australia for a better life?”.

“If they’re not articulate and they don’t take control of the situation … then the officials will take over and say things like, ‘I’m an officer of the Commonwealth, and if you lie to me you will go to prison’,” Byers said.

But if they use words like “persecution”, “protection”, “UN Refugee Convention” and “lawyer”, a proper review process will almost certainly proceed.

In a statement provided to Crikey, a spokeswoman from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship said the “lawful enhanced screening approach” was intended to weed out economic migrants. The government puts the onus on the individual asylum seeker to pipe up:

“The screening interview is conducted to ascertain a person’s reasons for coming to Australia … if it is determined that the person has not raised any issues that may engage Australia’s international obligations, the Department is required under the Migration Act to effect the person’s removal from Australia. If it is determined that international obligations may be engaged, removal does not proceed.”

Seems simple. Mention the Convention and receive due process, talk about work or a better life and get blackballed. In this spirit, Crikey presents a handy cut-out-and-keep guide for Sri Lankan (and other) refugees when they encounter customs or immigration officers.

  1. Demand immediate legal representation;
  2. If it’s true, say you want to seek asylum or protection or help from the Australian government because you’re being persecuted in your home country;
  3. If it’s true, say you’ll lose your life in your home country if you’re sent back. For example: “I can’t go back to Sri Lanka because I’m Tamil and the Sinhalese majority have threatened to kill me”;
  4. If it’s true, mention something about a well-founded fear of persecution citing at least one of the five grounds for protection under the UN Convention for the Status of Refugees — race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Follow these steps, experts agree, and the odds are your refugee application will be properly considered. Welcome to Australia.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey