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Protecting refugees the real challenges facing Australia



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The Hon. Philip Ruddock MR

Minister for Immigration

And Multicultural Affairs

Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600

Telephone: (02) 6277 7860

Facsimile: (02) 6273 4144

PROTECTING REFUGEES THE REAL CHALLENGES FACING AUSTRALIA

In recent weeks, much has been said about the Government’s approach to protecting refugees who happen to be in Australia.

However, the underlying issues are too important for all Australians not to look behind the publicity and allegations generated by individual cases to understand the real challenges facing the Government.

It is easy to overlook the plight of the estimated 22.3 million people arouQfl the world which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has identified as falling under its mandate. Addressing their problems has been a consistently high priority for successive Australian governments over the past fifty years.

In the aftermath of World W ar II, the international community formulated a universal safety net for the neediest of the needy. This protection was given effect by the United Nations 1951 Refugees Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and later conventions such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the

Convention Against Torture.

Through our Humanitarian Program this country has welcomed over 600,000 people since World W ar II. Australia is one of only seven countries worldwide that has a planned resettlement program for refugees and people in need of humanitarian assistance. k

This year we will once again provide 12,000 places for such individuals to settle in Australia. This commitment, on a per capita basis, is one of, if not the, largest in the^ world - around double that of the United States.

Hand in hand with our resettlement efforts, Australia also recognises its responsibility to protect people within our own borders. However, in the late 1980s, the number of people seeking asylum in Australia grew rapidly from around 500 per year to around 11,000 in 1996-97.

To address this dramatic change, a substantial and continuing effort has been made to ensure that these claims are assessed quickly and thoroughly so that those found to be refugees are speedily granted protection.

Australia’s Government has worked closely with UNHCR in developing and refining Australia’s refugee determination system and in the training of decision-makers. The UNHCR described it as "sophisticated, credible and fair". It is amongst the most thorough and reliable in the world.

To be a refugee an applicant needs only to give their account of their experiences and fears. Hearings are informal, interpreters are provided and most importantly there is no need for legal representation at any stage of the process.

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W e also have in place an independent Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) specifically designed to provide fair non-adversarial review.

The reality is that there will always be genuine refugees coming to Australia. Equally however, there will be many who see the relatively low burden of proof required in refugee determination processes as an opportunity to gain permanent residence or an extended stay here.

For many, work rights, access to Medicare, or obtaining Government-funded support payments while their case is assessed, offer prospects of financial gain far in excess of those in their home countries.

Unfortunately, there are those overseas and in the broader Australian community who are directly contributing to and benefiting from this abuse of a fair and generous system. The picture painted by migration litigation is clear.

The last four years has seen an almost 900% increase in appeals against RRT decisions to the Federal Court and a proliferation of class actions which serve to further delay the removal of large numbers of unlawful non-citizens.

Despite some hysterical claims made and sweeping, but unsubstantiated, criticisms of our processes, most litigation fails - 81 per cent in 1997-98.

From the commencement of the RRT in 1993 to the end of 1998, this body decided 21,052 review cases. O f this number, 1,419 applications have been made to the Federal Court to review RRT decisions. Tellingly, only 49 have obtained a different outcome for applicants.'

This clearly is not a picture of a flawed system or a system in crisis. It is a picture of a system performing as intended, providing non-adversarial, reliable and equitable refugee decisions.

Unfortunately despite the implementation of the robust Immigration Review Tribunal and Refugee Review Tribunal processes, recourse to the courts and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) in migration matters has ballooned.. Over 1,000 new matters were filed in 1997-98 compared to 455 in 1993-94. Migration

matters now make up a staggering 65% of the Federal Court's administrative law caseload.

Burgeoning numbers of vexatious refugee claims are placing a staggering burden of cost on Australian taxpayers. It is estimated that litigation costs will rise to $20 million by a year by 2002, with 70% of this cost relating to asylum claimants.

Additionally, running costs for the Refugee Review Tribunal were around $14 million in 1997-98, and in the same year $50 million was spent locating and removing people unlawfully in Australia, a large number who were failed asylum claimants.

When one considers that this financial year the Government spent $14 million directly assisting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in their efforts to alleviate the problems of the world’s refugees, it is clear our resources are not currently being prioritised appropriately.

Class actions are also increasingly being used as ‘weapons of delay’. There are currently 13 class/representative actions before the Courts involving some 5,480

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persons. Anecdotal evidence suggests that solicitors have charged each member a fee of $500 in some of these actions.

There are reasons for such misuse of the legal system. In other litigation the applicant only receives an outcome from legal action at the determination of the matter. However, in immigration litigation the applicant also generates the immediate outcome of being allowed to remain in Australia while the action is being pursued.

Australia is not alone in facing these problems. Unfortunately, the unlawful movement of people, their unauthorised entry, the forging of travel documents and disposal of identification before presenting to airport staff is an increasing feature of the world in which we live. A number of recent events in Australia amply demonstrate this.

Increasingly, people are mobile. Gangs, often with serious criminal affiliations can organise, for a fee, to deliver somebody from anywhere in the world to the Immigration Clearance line at Sydney International Airport.

There is no shortage also of people who will coach these individuals along the way in the mantras which they believe might gain them permanent residence in this country or delay their removal. For many just the prospect of working here offers sufficient attraction.

The challenge facing the Government is not an easy one. W e aim to ensure that Australia in all cases meets our Convention obligations. Inevitably it is preferable that we err on the side of generosity when assessing who in this country needs our protection. And we do.'

People making application for asylum in Australia have a significantly higher success rate than those applying off-shore through the UNHCR. When you consider that this grant rate is at primary stage, before review, our generosity is clear.

51.56% of Iraqi nationals making claims in Australia succeed compared to the UNHCR’s grant rate of 28.5% for Iraqi’s applying through Turkey and 30.8% for those applying through Jordon. Furthermore, Sudanese nationals have more than ~ twice the likelihood of making a successful claim in Australia than they do through the UNHCR in Eygpt. 37.84% are granted in Australia compared to 15% in Eygpt.

Beyond this I have a power to grant asylum on humanitarian grounds and have done so more frequently than my predecessors and beyond the outcomes generated by judicial action.

Our onshore processes are careful but in some cases the protection may inevitably be given to those who do not need it. Every person who is not a real refugee and gains entry in this way takes up a place better used by a genuine refugee from one of the many trouble spots around the world.

For these reasons the Government has presented to the Parliament the Migration Legislation Amendment (Judicial Review) Bill.

Contrary to recent assertions, this bill is not in breach of Australia’s international obligations. This bill represents a legitimate and measured response to a very real problem.

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It is, in short, designed to restrict access to the courts in migration matters in all but exceptional circumstances.

The Judicial Review Bill aims to reduce the growing cost and incidence of migration litigation and the consequent delays in removing non-citizens with no right to remain in Australia.

W e need to bear in mind that much of the criticism about this bill comes from groups and individuals supporting those whose claims have failed and from others who stand to benefit, directly or indirectly, from an ever-expanding workload of litigation and lobbying.

The Government makes no excuses for focusing Australia’s humanitarian intake on the genuine and most needy.

W e must never lose sight of the ‘faceless millions’ languishing in the most desperate of situations in refugee camps all around the world. These people are unable to pay for airline tickets and forged documents to travel to Australia as others do. In fact, they are in many cases being actively sought out for torture or murder.

These people don't attract the spotlight and media hype others in Australia are afforded. But they still exist, and they still desperately need our help.

ENDS Word Count: 1,500

Monday, 13 May, 1999