Why is Australia’s Immigration Minister Attacking the Refugee Convention?

By Dana Affleck | 07 Aug 14

No amount of coffee could have prepared me for this headline: “Morrison attacks UN Refugee Convention.”

Over in New York, I audibly moaned into my mid-morning bagel, reading the latest assault on Australia’s integrity off my phone. A colleague asks what’s wrong. I have to explain that the Australian Minister for Immigration and Border Protection (to which she rightfully snorts “Border Protection”) announced that he takes issue with 60 years of international, domestic and comparative judicial interpretation of the UN Refugee Convention.

She stared at me in disbelief and said, “Your Immigration Minister said that? What does that even mean?” It means he has decided that vilifying refugees is no longer enough; he wishes to vilify the legal instrument and the people that provide refugees with legal protection as well.

Why?” How could I begin to answer that question? Facts, stories, statistics, Australian politics, the law and faces start circling in my head. I instinctively order another coffee.

What does the Refugee Convention do?

First, let’s set out the definition of a refugee. According to the Convention, this is a person who is unable or unwilling to return home due to a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Why: any person who faces serious harm in a particular country from which they cannot protect themselves or be protected from deserves to be protected elsewhere. Any further explanation of this concept would involve explaining the value of human life and dignity. I hope we have not yet regressed so far that this is necessary (that said, I never thought I would have to justify the UN Refugees Convention, so time will tell).

A refugee cannot be sent back, against their will, to the country where they face persecution (‘the first country’). Nor can they be sent to a third country where they risk being returned to that first country. This is known as the principle of non-refoulement.

Why: Once it’s been established that a person is a refugee, the government owes them protection. This obviously includes the obligation of not sending the refugee back to persecution. The Convention also prevents this from happening indirectly through the actions of a third country. These are simply rules that provide sensible safeguards against future persecution.

The Convention stipulates that asylum seekers must not be punished for their mode of entry into a country that is a signatory to the Convention. This is so even if the mode of entry would be deemed illegal had its purpose not been to seek asylum.

Why: This exception to regular domestic immigration rules recognises the reality of seeking asylum. There is no orderly queue; there is not always time to make thorough travel plans and visa applications; it is not always possible to obtain identity documents or a passport; it is not always safe or possible to remain in a transit country, even where the UNHCR has an office; and the list goes on. The idea that seeking asylum can be controlled like crocodile lines in a schoolyard is preposterous and to impose those impossible standards on people in desperate need to escape persecution is dangerous.

Inconveniently for the Immigration Minister (and more so for the refugee in question), there is no take-a-number deli system to seek asylum. Just like the GP is not the appropriate place to take a person just hit by a car, asylum seekers need the Emergency Room. If Mr. Morrison would like to try that analogy out for size, when he is having a heart attack, I suggest he try driving to the hospital abiding by all road rules instead of taking an ambulance.

The UN Refugee Convention sets out a lot of other rights, responsibilities and exceptions but the above three lay the foundations of international law on asylum.

What is Mr Morrison’s problem?

Many terms of the Refugee Convention do not serve the government’s (or the previous government’s) political interests. It isn’t easy maintaining that an asylum seeker is coming here illegally or that they are skipping the queue when the UN’s refugee regulatory body and the UN Refugee Convention itself contradict those false claims.

So how does Mr. Morrison respond? Attack the foundations that the concept of asylum is built upon. Foundations which were laid by the international community in response to the horrors of World War II.

What does this mean?

In the preamble of the Convention, it is noted that the global problem of refugees cannot be solved without international co-operation. It notes that without such co-operation, the burden of refugees may disproportionately fall on certain countries (at present Jordan, Lebanon and Pakistan to name a few). The countries that bear the brunt are not the ones that can afford to. So at a time when the world needs wealthy and prosperous nations to step up, it appears that Australia is preparing to step down.

Our Immigration Minister is playing a Parliamentary game of point scoring and fear mongering. Meanwhile, human lives, human bodies and human dignity hang in the balance. It’s a dangerous game and Mr. Morrison just raised the stakes.