The current policy for assessing claims for refugees at Australian airports prioritises visa cancellations, mandatory detention and removal over protection needs, according to a new policy brief.
The paper released on Tuesday by UNSW’s Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law has called for Australia’s airport asylum process to be reformed “to ensure that those in need of protection are identified and not returned to harm”.
The authors of the brief — Kaldor Centre’s Regina Jefferies, Macquarie Law School’s Daniel Ghezelbash, and the Refugee Council of Australia’s Asher Hirsch — note that some travellers who claim refugee status at Australian airports are turned away after being interviewed and without access to a lawyer.
“This extraordinary entry-screening process has resulted in refugees being hand-cuffed and detained, simply for raising a protection claim in the airport,” they say in a statement.
“Even worse, some have been immediately returned to the country where they fear harm, without a robust assessment of their claim or access to any review of the decision.”
The brief argues that visas should not be cancelled solely because a protection claim is raised at an Australian airport, and recommends that protection claims always be evaluated, detention only ever be used as a last resort, and requests to access legal counsel or immigration forms be fulfilled.
Screening procedures at airports should also be established through legislation and should include a number of safeguards, the brief says. For example, applicants should be interviewed by a “competent official” from the Humanitarian Program section of the Department of Home Affairs, and applicants who aren’t referred for the full asylum procedure should be entitled to have the decision reviewed by an independent decision maker before they are removed from Australia.
Jefferies argues that now is the perfect time to address these issues, as COVID-19 has brought international travel to a halt.
“With air travel set to be transformed, these procedures can also be reformed so that people are not sent back to harm, or otherwise only able to access temporary protection, simply because they did not leave the bounds of the airport before making a claim for protection,” she says.
If implemented, the recommended reforms will bring Australia’s policies in line with principles of procedural fairness and international refugee and human rights law protections.
The paper also raises concerns over transparency and accountability, stating that Home Affairs doesn’t appear to collect key data about the operation of entry screening procedures.
“This is particularly concerning given that the department seeks to rely on big data and other technological tools to inform and assist officials in making decisions in the protection space and beyond,” it says.
“The development and implementation of evidence-based policy and sound decision-making requires quality data that reflects the context of the relevant rules-based framework.
“Without knowing how many travellers have sought protection at Australian airports, or how many travellers have had their visas cancelled due to raising a protection claim, the extent to which Australia has failed to comply with its domestic and international legal obligations is unclear.”
The brief makes a number of recommendations calling on Home Affairs to improve its data collection, record-keeping and transparency practices.