Sydney, 31 October 2016 – Jesuit Refugee Service Australia (JRS) condemns Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement that people arriving by boat to seek asylum in Australia, and currently held in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, would be banned for life from entering Australia.
The proposed legislation is in breach of Article 31 of the Refugees Convention, which states that refugees should not be penalised for their mode of entry or a lack of documentation.
Australia is the lone signatory to the Convention that denies people asylum based on their mode of arrival. JRS notes that Mr Turnbull in his statement referred to these people as “irregular maritime arrivals”, not “illegal” ones. The legislation would exclude from Australia people who made journeys without prior clearance from the receiving country, the kind of irregular entry that is made daily by the vast majority of refugees fleeing conflict.
Mr Turnbull described the circumstances prompting the legislation as a battle of wills between the people of Australia and criminal people-smugglers. This is political legerdemain at its worse. By presenting people smugglers as the mortal enemy, he deliberately obscures from view the people who will suffer as a result of this legislation: desperate people fleeing armed conflict and violent persecution.
Pope Francis last week said that the only solution to the current refugee and migrant crisis is solidarity. Mr Turnbull’s proposed legislation is an utter failure in solidarity, and a total capitulation to the right-wing and xenophobic elements in and outside his party.
Some of the recognised refugees on Nauru or Manus Island have family members already in Australia. If the legislation is passed they will never be reunited with their families.
JRS is not reassured by the Minister for Immigration’s insistence that those with families already in Australia could be allowed to enter the country by the Minister exercising discretionary powers “in the public interest”. A government that has repeatedly acted against the dignity and human rights of asylum seekers and refugees cannot be trusted to exercise discretion.
There has been speculation that the government is close to securing an arrangement with a third country as a place to resettle some of those on Nauru and Manus Island. JRS hopes that a safe third country can be found quickly so that the unnecessary suffering of innocent people can be brought to an end. However, any such arrangement should take into consideration existing connections with family in Australia, and does not absolve Australia of its failure to provide protection to people who have sought asylum here.