Principles for a coherent refugee policy

The following is from the text of  Fr Frank Brennan SJ’s speech ‘Principles for a Coherent Refugee and Migration Policy’, presented to the Society of Independent Scholars, National Library of Australia, 3 November 2011.

In 2009, I was privileged to chair the National Human Rights Consultation Committee. During that inquiry we commissioned some very detailed research on Australian attitudes. A random telephone poll of 1200 Australians disclosed that over 70 per cent of us think that the mentally ill, the aged, and persons with disabilities need greater protection from violation of their human rights.

Quizzed about a whole range of minority groups, there was only one group in relation to whom the Australian population was split right down the middle. While 28 per cent thought that asylum seekers needed greater protection, 42 per cent thought we had the balance right, and 30 per cent thought that asylum seekers deserved less protection.

By way of comparison, 32 per cent thought gays and lesbians needed greater protection, 50 per cent thought we had the balance right, and only 18 per cent thought gays and lesbians deserved less protection.

Australia is a long time signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 protocol. It is one of the few countries in the region having ratified the Convention. Indonesia and Malaysia are not parties to the Convention. Since the Vietnam War, there have been periodic waves of boat people heading for Australia seeking asylum. These boat people often pass through Malaysia and/or Indonesia.

Under the Convention, parties undertake three key obligations:

  1. Not to impose for illegal entry or unauthorised presence in their country any penalty on refugees coming directly from a territory where they are threatened, provided only that the refugees present themselves without delay and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.
  2. Not to expel refugees lawfully in their territory save on grounds of national security or public order.
  3. Not to expel or return (‘refoule’) refugees to the frontiers of any territory where their lives or freedom would be threatened.
Given the wide gap between the first and the third world, it is not surprising that some people fleeing persecution will look further afield for more secure protection together with more hopeful economic and educational opportunities.   Read more
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