Australia moved to toughen its refugee stance on Tuesday, launching a stricter character test so those convicted of crimes, including rioting, while in immigration detention could be shipped home.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the new law, if passed by Parliament, would mean any asylum-seeker found guilty of an offence while in detention would automatically fail character requirements for a visa.
It follows wild rioting in immigration facilities on Christmas Island last month and in Sydney, where fire gutted nine buildings last week as 100 inmates demonstrated against their detention at Villawood.
Dozens of people have been questioned by police over the riots but no charges have yet been laid.
Bowen said the character-test amendments would be retrospective, meaning those convicted of crimes as a result of the riots could face deportation or receive only temporary visas with limited rights.
“Certainly the approach that I would be taking is to apply that test vigorously,” he told reporters.
The minister stressed that the overhaul would not breach Australia’s international obligations and “we will not be returning people who are genuine refugees to a country in which they are in danger”.
But under the changes, offending asylum-seekers considered to be in danger if repatriated would only receive a temporary visa, which could be revoked once the situation in their home country was considered to have improved.
Currently the government can only refuse applications on character grounds when a detainee has a substantial criminal record or has been convicted of an offence and sentenced to a year or more in prison.
Refugee advocates and the left-wing Greens party condemned the move as a return to harsh policies of the past under which detainees, including children, were held for lengthy periods behind razor wire on remote Pacific islands.
“What I have a problem with is the suggestion that because they have misbehaved in detention we will therefore deny them the protection they are entitled to as refugees,” said prominent human rights lawyer Julian Burnside.
“I don’t have a problem with them facing the criminal justice system, but you cannot strip them of their refugee status because for many of them that would involve a death sentence,” he told ABC radio.
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the approach would exacerbate, not ease unrest and anxiety in Australia’s detention centres, which have been stretched to capacity by the arrival of a record 7 000 people in 2010.
Most arrived by leaky fishing vessels along the popular people smuggling corridor from Indonesia, and were from countries such as Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq.
UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, said there was a 33% increase in asylum claims in Australia last year but stressed that many other countries had seen a similar surge and overall numbers were a third lower than the peak levels seen in 2001.
Australia accounted for just 2% of total global claims, and they came from some of the world’s most troubled and conflict-ridden regions, the UNHCR said.
Bowen said he understood the frustration of refugees held under Canberra’s mandatory detention policy and that “if people have taken the effort to get to Australia by boat … then they are looking for a visa”.
“But there is nothing which justifies the sorts of actions we’ve seen at Christmas Island and Villawood over recent weeks,” the minister said. — AFP