“This is a very significant decision for Australia,” Amnesty International Australia’s national refugee coordinator Graham Thom told IRIN on 20 March.
“This announcement brings to an end a process that discriminated against asylum-seekers depending on how and where they arrived in Australia,” said Paul Power, chief executive officer of the Australian Refugee Council.
As of 24 March, undocumented asylum-seekers arriving by boat will be assessed for refugee status under the same system as air arrivals.
The move brings to an end a parallel, non-statutory system introduced in 2001 when the government of former prime minister John Howard made legal exceptions for, or “excised”, a large number of territories, including Christmas Island, in an effort to make it more difficult for certain categories of people to claim asylum.
On 11 November 2010, however, the High Court ruled refugee determination decisions made under the excision policy lacked procedural fairness and were inconsistent with Australian law.
“Under the new framework, people who arrive by boat from that date [24 March] will have their claims heard under a statutory process with merits review by the RRT [Refugee Review Tribunal] on appeal, instead of the previous Independent Merits Review (IMR) system,” said Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Chris Bowen.
“This means the protection obligations assessment process for irregular maritime arrivals will be consistent with that of onshore protection visa applicants.”
Activists still concerned
But despite this week’s announcement, activists say government policies continue to penalize those arriving by boat, the vast majority of whom turn out to be bona fide refugees.
“Mandatory detention for undocumented asylum-seekers is the central issue and is still on the books. This needs to be dismantled immediately,” said Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition.
“It is important for Australia to now revisit policies such as mandatory detention, ensuring all asylum-seekers are treated equally regardless of how they enter the country,” said Amnesty International’s Thorn, adding that treating asylum-seekers differently based on how they arrived was at odds with Australia’s international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
According to the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship, there are more than 4,500 people now in detention, including more than 3,000 in eight high security immigration detention centres.
Since the 1990s, the Australian government has had a policy of indefinite mandatory detention for asylum-seekers – many of them Sri Lankans, Afghans and Iranians – arriving by boat.
Government statistics show more than 36 percent of detainees have been held in detention for more than a year. “Two thousand have been in detention for over a year and 1,000 longer than 18 months. That’s too much. Way too much,” Rintoul said.