Denis O’Brien, the leading lawyer who headed the Refugee Review Tribunal for five years until June last year, has dismissed Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s claims that a flood of ‘economic migrants’ have been wrongly classed as refugees because the system is too soft. He went on to say that Australia would be in danger of breaching its obligations under the refugee convention if it tried to tighten the criteria by which asylum is assessed.
“I’ve been surprised, I must say, by the commentary”, Mr O’Brien said. The refugee tribunal had to apply the definition under the refugees’ convention, he said. “So I don’t see a lot of scope for tightening up without sort of running afoul of … the United Nations High Commission for Refugees”.
Senator Carr last week flagged a tightening of the way asylum is assessed, amid fresh political sparring on the sensitive topic between the new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the Coalition.
Scott Morrison, opposition immigration spokesman, has sharpened his attacks, declaring that to “stop the boats”, Australia must help its northern neighbour “stop the planes” – referring to the passage of asylum seekers to countries such as Indonesia from which people smugglers operate.
Senator Carr has said many or even most people arriving by boat were economic migrants, not refugees, particularly middle-class Iranians, who were “increasingly not people fleeing persecution”.
It is understood Australia is seeking ways to return failed Iranian asylum seekers home, as it now done with Sri Lankans.
Senator Carr said Australian diplomatic mission in source countries would be called on to make a bigger contribution to asylum assessments. “There’s some evidence that the tribunals have not been hard-headed enough”.
Mr O’Brien contradicted this, saying the tribunal had detailed and up-to-date information on conditions in source countries. In a vigorous defence of the system, he said he did not believe he had made an incorrect decision as a tribunal member.
“By and large, the refugee review tribunal gets it right”.
It’s been a week of momentous change for the nation, not least because of the significant racheting-up of Australia’s war on refugee boats. The Federal Opposition’s Scott Morrison is still as strident and predictable as ever, trotting out the same tired clichés and slogans, but the change in tenor has been from the Government’s Foreign Minister. Bob Carr is normally, and sometimes painfully, measured in his public utterances. My initial reaction was that Carr had been caught off guard or taken out of context but, sadly, after several more days of consistently aggressive rhetoric, it’s clear he and the Prime Minister are adopting a new tack.
So is it cynical to suspect that, with the return of Rudd to the Lodge, we’re witnessing the initial stage of a new government initiative? Not so much ‘turn back the boats’, but ‘fly back the refugees’. Such public announcements would normally fall in the Minister for Immigration’s bailiwick, but perhaps the newly sworn in Tony Burke is judged to be too ‘soft’ or ‘nice’ for the government’s new refugee policy. Also interestingly, Carr is one of the few ministers not to have been subject to the Rudd reshuffle last weekend. For viewers of ABC TV’s Q&A last Monday, the first victim of this new hardline policy on refugees was one of the government’s own. The Minister for Health, Tanya Plibersek, had the unenviable task of putting the government’s case on a panel that included the Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Sophie Mirabella. The latter was capably rebuffed, but a direct question concerning whether Plibersek supported Carr’s most recent statements on refugees sorely challenged one of the government’s most capable and impressive ministers. Clearly, her integrity and honesty forced her to disagree with Carr’s contention that most people arriving by boat are ‘economic migrants’.
Do you agree with the government’s new tougher stance on those arriving by boat? Or do you support the former head of the refugee tribunal when he says our system is not too soft?