The Australian Government’s Senseless Asylum Policy

The Australian Government temporarily suspended processing of asylum claims from Afghan and Sri Lankan nationals earlier this month, claiming the situations in those countries had sufficiently improved.

In Kabul, where I am writing from, this news was met with dismay. Afghans I spoke to were surprised and disheartened. The Australian government’s announcement seemed completely out of touch with reality on the ground, where conflict is spreading, women and minorities still face systematic discrimination, and threatened individuals are rarely able to seek protection from the authorities.

The people of Afghanistan contend with some of the worst human rights violations imaginable, yet the Australian government believes that because Afghanistan in 2010 is not as bad as Afghanistan nine years earlier under the Taliban regime, Afghans as a group should be shut out from the asylum process.

Human Rights Watch has called on the Australian government to reverse its decision, and promptly process all refugee claims.

“The Australian government shouldn’t cherry-pick among nationalities when deciding whose refugee claims get heard,” said Elaine Pearson, the rights group’s deputy Asia director. “Australia should be setting a positive example for refugee protection in the region, not undermining international standards.”

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, both of which Australia is a party to, the application of blanket suspensions to particular nationalities is discriminatory, and Australia is obligated to provide individuals with an opportunity to claim asylum and to examine their refugee claims.

While international law is on the asylum seekers’ side, politics and timing are not. As Afghans look ahead to a summer of bloody battles and Sri Lankan Tamils face an uncertain future following last year’s offensive against the Tamil Tigers and resulting mass displacement of civilians, Australia is in the midst of an election cycle, and the incumbent government is seeking to win votes by demonstrating  immigration ‘toughness’ at the expense of some of the most vulnerable people in the world.