For original, full text visit: http://m.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/unity-for-human-rights-20121126-2a3j0.html

“By Paris Aristotle:

The asylum seeker debate in Parliament is on a destructive and combative course… as opposed to one in the spirit of co-operation. That we could plumb to these depths on such a vital human rights issue is sad but also emblematic of the entrenched positions within and outside of the Parliament…The panel presented an integrated package of 22 recommendations knowing it would take time to implement them and have the desired effect… [T]here were…strong measures designed, not to punish, but to discourage people risking their lives while a better system is created. They included reintroducing processing on Nauru and Manus Island; building on and implementing the ”Malaysia Arrangement” and increased co-operation with Indonesia.

To mitigate the associated risks the panel recommended safeguards. They include no arbitrary detention, appropriate accommodation, legal assistance and merits review, an oversight group and services such as health, mental health, education and vocational training. To date not all of these measures have been implemented, particularly in terms of appropriate accommodation and the processing of claims. They are designed to ensure processes comply with our convention obligations. Both Australia and Nauru are signatories to the convention and therefore should implement these measures without delay.

The panel was pleased that the government responded promptly with a commitment to all 22 recommendations. But I was dismayed that from the outset key elements were not supported at political and civil society levels, and were not examined with the open-minded consideration we believed was warranted.

…A clear-eyed view of realistic options becomes clouded by political populism, media cycles, ideological rigidity and acrimony. There is little compromise in spite of tragic humanitarian consequences.

One of the most contentious and misunderstood proposals made by the panel relates to the principle of ”no advantage”. The principle was not conceived as a means of preventing people from fleeing persecution or receiving protection. It seeks to create greater fairness for as many people as possible, including vulnerable refugees who are not within our immediate gaze.

This principle…should be applied on a case-by-case basis incorporating issues such as vulnerability and need, as well as the length of time a person has been awaiting protection… Time cannot be the only consideration and its purpose must never be to crush people.

The announcements last week to disallow asylum seekers work rights and timely access to family reunion, even after they have been found to be a refugee, were not recommendations of the panel. The minister on Monday clarified that these measures were not associated with the panel recommendations… The measures are highly problematic because they are a punitive form of deterrence in response to a specific and new phenomenon in people smuggling from Sri Lanka that the government believes is for economic reasons as opposed refugee protection. This is best established by properly and quickly processing their claims. Those that are refugees should be protected and those who are not can be returned. The coalition’s proposal to slash the humanitarian quota back to 13,750 places and reintroduce temporary protection visas also makes little sense. These measures offer little in terms of a longer-term regional response.

The principle of no advantage cannot be severed from the other principles in the report in order to justify such measures. In particular, the principle that all recommendations should ensure ”adherence by Australia to its international obligations” must be respected.

In just over a decade before the panel’s establishment, 960 people died at sea trying to reach Australia. There are reports of other disappearances from desperate families while others are left only with photos of coffins in Indonesia containing loved ones. Just before the report was released a boat carrying 60 people disappeared and has not been heard of since. Two months ago a boat carrying 150 people sank with more than 120 drowning. A 13-year-old boy watched his father, brother and uncle perish; at least one person died from a shark attack. On October 27 a boat carrying 34 people sank, killing all but one.”

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