Friday, May 21, 2010

Hitch Hiking on High Seas

Ishita Dey

The very nature of “borderlands” is ambiguous for a person forced to flee, people have been forced to take various avenues to migrate particularly “high seas” to distant lands in search of safe passage and safe life. The media reports of rescue of 100 Rohingya refugees who were left to their fate after ill treatment by Thai Army followed by interventions from Bangladesh last year and death of ten Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees near Kakinada coast, India on 1 May 2009 shows that refugees continue to take high seas amidst the risk. While the reasons for such passage has been documented the current problem lies in the way developed nations and often states which have ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention fail to cope with the “ new boat people” for instance the initial refusal by the Australian authorities in October 2009 to grant protection mechanisms to 78 Tamil refugees who were stranded in Indonesian coast saying that "There's an agreement between Australia and the Government of Indonesia that the people who were rescued in the open seas will go to Indonesia and be processed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Indonesia," Australia's Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told ABC News 1 . Refugees have taken recourse to high seas to move to safer places and recent reports of Tamil refugees taking to high seas to reach Australia a signatory of 1951 refugee convention and the recent announcement on 9 April 2010 by the Australian Government not to take in Afghan and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees points to certain complex issues of refugee protection of those being intercepted at high seas.

Mark Davis (2010) 2 drawing from a recently published paper by Parliamentary researchers Janet Phillipes and Harriet Spinks that chronicles three decades of attempts to deter asylum seekers from entering lawfully in to Australia. “In 1978 the Fraser Government approached regional Government to hold vessels in transit so that claims could be processed while asylum seekers were in refugee camps. In 1982 the Liberal Party’s moderate Immigration minister, Ian Macphee, introduced individual determination of asylum claims to ensure only “genuine” refugees were admitted. In 1983 the newly elected Hawke Government endorsed a plan by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for “durable solutions” to the Indo Chinese refugee problem which made resettlement in countries such as Australia a last resort. In 1992 the Immigration minister, Gerry Hans, from the Victorian ALP’s Socialist Left, introduced mandatory detention for all non-citizens in Australia without a valid visa. From 1999 Howard Government tightened policy by introducing temporary protection visas for asylum seekers found to be refugees after arriving unlawfully”. These visas were valid for three years. In 2001 John Howard adopted the Pacific Solution by sending the unauthorized arrivals to Nauru and Papua New Guinea while their asylum claims were processed. The Rudd Government ended the Pacific Solution in 2008 and announced that all future arrivals would be processed on Christmas Island. The Christmas Island detention centre – built for 800 people were holding about 1,500 in tents and buildings according to reports in April 2010 3.
The recent cases of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees being intercepted near the Indonesian Coast and most of them wanting to seek asylum in Australia and the Australian Government’s refusal to process asylum applications of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees and refugees from Afghanistan came at a time when 70 people the Australian navy rescued 70 people from a sinking boat in Australian waters in the Indian Ocean. According to the news reports “The passengers, who said they wanted to come to Australia, would be the last allowed to file refugee claims with Australia under the new standards”. The United Nations refugee agency said it would review Australia's decision, which it said was made independently of the agency's assessments of the situation in those countries."We are currently examining Australia's announcement, particularly with regard to issues around the detention of vulnerable persons and the provision of social support for those asylum seekers subject to this suspension," said Richard Towle, UNHCR regional representative for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific”.

In the light of these cases various issues come up: despite being a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the suspension of asylum applications for Sri Lankan Tamils and Afghan refugees are a clear signal that no matter out how desperate are people are to flee through “illegal” means; risking their lives for a better future, protection mechanisms devised are not sufficient to grant them “legal” status. It is time that the international protection mechanisms available under such circumstances and the practices adopted by signatory states are closely monitored by the international community to avoid such arbitrary policies of protecting the victims of forced migration – the refugees.

1.“Australia refuses Tamil refugees” in; Accessed on 17 May 2010
2.Davis, Mark. “Long history of hardline rules to stem asylum boats” in The Sunday Morning Hearld, 10-11 April 2010
3.Australia stops accepting refugee claims from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, 9 April 2010 in; accessed on 18 May 2010


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