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Asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in Indonesia blocked from resettlement
The Guardian (Australia) - November 18, 2014
The immigration minister Scott Morrison announced on Tuesday that asylum seekers who have registered with UNHCR after 1 July 2014 will no longer be eligible for one of the 11,000 humanitarian programme places set aside for asylum seekers living overseas.
The change in policy means that thousands of asylum seekers currently living in Indonesia – who often have limited work rights and social support – will be prevented from ever applying offshore to be resettled in Australia.
The humanitarian programme is for asylum seekers seeking protection in Australia via the UNHCR – which is the option preferred by the federal government – rather than entering Australia by boat and applying for protection onshore.
The decision will apply retrospectively, and any asylum seekers who arrived after 1 July 2014 will be unable to be resettled. The minister also said that the decision would also reduce Australia's intake of refugees from before 1 July, with a more limited number of places available.
There are currently more than 10,000 asylum seekers already registered with UNHCR, with more living in the country who may not have registered. The decision means that asylum seekers currently in Indonesia will either have to stay in the country, or seek protection in another country in the region.
Morrison said: "These changes should reduce the movement of asylum seekers to Indonesia and encourage them to seek resettlement in or from countries of first asylum."
"The government's policies under Operation Sovereign Borders have not only saved lives at sea, but also allowed more places under our humanitarian programme for the world's most desperate and vulnerable refugees. It is important that these places are not taken up by people seeking to exploit the programme by shopping for resettlement through a transit country."
Morrison said the Indonesian government had been made aware of the decision. Indonesia's relationship with Australia has been fraught over asylum seeker policies, after Australia's navy and customs vessels entered Indonesian waters in a series of inadvertent incursions as part of the government's boat turnback policy.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said: "This is the exact opposite of what the government should be doing.
"We should be working with our neighbours, accelerating refugee processing and increasing Australia's intake from the region so that people are given a safe way to reach protection. That's the only way we can save lives at sea while caring for refugees."
The Refugee Council of Australia's chief executive, Paul Power, slammed the decision and said it sent a clear signal that Australia did not care about its neighbouring countries. "It's an outrageous move from the Australian government, it will damage Australia's relationship with Indonesia," he said.
"Not only has Australia been sending asylum seekers back to Indonesia in situations where the Indonesian government doesn't have the resources to keep asylum seekers, but now we're making the situation much worse by refusing to help our neighbours."
Amnesty Australia's national refugee coordinator, Graham Thom, said it was an extraordinary announcement. "The short answer is this leaves people in limbo in a very vulnerable situation. We know that Indonesia doesn't have the resources to look after refugees. They're not allowed to work, they're increasingly becoming destitute," he said.
Elaine Pearson, director of Human Rights Watch Australia, said: "Australia should be taking more people from Indonesia not less, if this was really about regional burden-sharing and saving lives at sea.
"But clearly this is only about Australia's self-interest and pushing problems further away from our shores. Closing its eyes to the realities faced by asylum seekers won't make these problems go away – it's just shifting the burden on to other countries."
The humanitarian programme is not administered by regulations, and can be changed at the direction of the immigration minister.