FEDERAL Government plans to excise the whole Australian territory from asylum seekers who arrive by boat have led to an outcry from Catholic organisations and other advocates for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.
Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office (ACMRO) director Scalabrinian Father Maurizio Pettena said the proposal had caused such concern it would be the key issue discussed at the Third National Conference on the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees at Melbourne’s Australian Catholic University campus next month.
Josephite leader Sr Anne Derwin said the congregation was “shocked, horrified and deeply saddened by the (Government’s proposal)” and called it an “erosion of the Australian values of a fair go for all and concern for the underdog”.
Former Commonwealth ombudsman Allan Asher and lawyer and refugee advocate Jessie Taylor have expressed concerns the Government’s plans “stripped asylum seekers of their legal rights”.
Mr Asher said the lack of a proper review of all refugee claims “would go against Australia’s international obligations”.
Ms Taylor said there needed to be more transparency about how the initial screening process of asylum seekers was carried out.
The Government introduced legislation into the House of Representatives on October 31 to excise the Australian mainland from the migration zone.
The change would strip away any legal advantage asylum seekers gained from reaching the mainland compared with those who were taken directly to Christmas Island.
It would mean all asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat would be processed offshore.
The plan to excise the mainland was one of 22 recommendations put forward by the Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston-led expert panel on asylum seekers in August this year.
The proposed legislation relates to Recom-mendation 14 which is “that the Migration Act 1958 be amended so that arrival anywhere on Australia by irregular maritime means will not provide individuals with a different lawful status than those who arrive in an excised offshore place”.
Fr Pettena said the ACMRO “appreciates the considerable challenge that the Australian Government faces to ensure asylum seekers do not lose their life reaching Australia”.
“Unfortunately, we do not decide who comes to Australia or the manner in which they arrive,” he said.
“Australia is not immune to the conflict and persecution affecting those in other parts of the world.
“We are part of the global community and must act accordingly.
“The excision policy sets a dangerous precedent for all other nations that have signed the Refugee Convention.”
Sr Derwin said the Josephite congregation opposed this latest amendment to Australia’s legislation on asylum seekers on three grounds:
It is an abandonment of our nation’s moral responsibility towards some of the most vulnerable people in the world.
It is an erosion of the Australian values of a fair go for all, and concern for the underdog.
It is a direct contradiction of Labor’s promises of compassion for asylum seekers and refugees, and their claims during John Howard’s years as Prime Minister, that such a law is “lunacy and ludicrous”.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, introducing the bill, told Parliament “this marks an important further step in giving full effect to the recommendations of the expert panel on asylum seekers”.
“It removes the incentive for asylum seekers to take greater risks with their lives to reach the Australian mainland,” he said.
However, critics have pointed out in 2006 Mr Bowen and other senior Labor figures when in Opposition fought furiously against Mr Howard’s move to excise the Australian mainland from the migration zone – and they won.
Opposition Immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the Coalition would consider the plan when the legislation was put to it.
“With such a backflip … the Government surely must just come clean and say they were wrong to abolish the proven measures of the Howard government that were working when they came to office in 2007,” he said.
Former Labor MP Craig Thomson is among parliamentarians who have said they would oppose the latest asylum-seeker law changes.
He said they appealed to “racist” elements.