New migration Bill would allow Government to breach international law and sideline the courts say leading human rights organisations

Proposed changes to migration laws would widen the Immigration Minister’s power, marginalise international law and wind back the ability of Australian courts to scrutinise the Government’s treatment of asylum seekers, leading human rights organisations will tell the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee today.

The Human Rights Law Centre, UNICEF Australia, Save the Children, Plan, the Human Rights Council of Australia and Children’s Rights International, made a joint written submission earlier this month outlining the grave human rights risks posed by the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014 (Cth), introduced into Parliament by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison on 25 September 2014.

HRLC’s Executive Director, Hugh de Kretser, said the Bill contains a suite of proposed changes that carry significant human rights risks.

“The Prime Minister and Immigration Minister repeatedly tell the public that Australia complies with international law, but in this Bill they’re seeking a licence to breach it,” said Mr de Kretser. “The Bill creates clear dangers that we will return people to harm in breach of international law and it winds back the power of the courts to do anything about it.”

Treatment of children

UNICEF Australia Chief Executive Officer Norman Gillespie said among the risks posed by the Bill was authorisation to lock babies born in Australia in mandatory detention on Nauru.

“The Bill put forward by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison seeks to classify children born in Australia as ‘unauthorised maritime arrivals’ if one of their parents is labelled such, leaving those children subject to mandatory detention and transfer to Nauru,” said Dr Gillespie.

Dr Gillespie said this inherently arbitrary and inhumane process for dealing with newborn children threatened to render these babies as stateless and cut their access to health care, legal protection and longer term education and even job opportunities.

“Statelessness has profound, negative effects on children’s identities and their development and creates greater risks of children experiencing labour exploitation, sexual exploitation, trafficking, poverty and discrimination,” said Dr Gillespie.

The CEO of Plan International Australia, Ian Wishart, is also deeply concerned.

“Far from meeting its international obligations to protect children under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the government would be making children more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse,” said Mr Wishart.

Removing references to Refugees Convention from Australian law

The Bill would remove references to the Refugees Convention from the Migration Act and replace them with the Government’s own interpretation of the Convention.

“The Refugees Convention is the cornerstone of international refugee protection with 145 nations who are parties to it around the world. Yet, the Government is now trying to unilaterally redefine the Convention to suit its own purposes,” said Mr de Kretser.

Temporary Protection Visas

The Bill (as well as some promised regulations) introduce various forms of temporary protection visas, denying permanent protection to thousands of refugees solely on the basis of the mode of transport they used to seek it.

Save the Children’s Chief Executive Officer, Paul Ronalds, said TPVs cause harm.

"Save the Children welcomes the Government's proposal to remove children and their families from immigration detention. This must happen as a matter of urgency because the prolonged detention of children is harmful to their physical and mental well-being. Temporary protection is not the answer however. It will mean people fleeing persecution are left in limbo, forced to prove and re-prove they are refugees. The emotional and mental cost of such uncertainty is enormous and well documented.

"We are also shooting ourselves in the foot. It is in our interests that people are settled quickly, recover from their trauma, find work or study and contribute economically and socially to their new home. The bottom line is, people found to be refugees must be given permanent protection from persecution," said Mr Ronalds.

Processing of claims

The Bill introduces “rapid processing” and “streamlined review arrangements” for asylum seekers coming by boat, who will be denied the right to appeal to the Refugee Review Tribunal.

“This Bill would introduce dangerous administrative shortcuts into a process that makes life or death decisions. Efficient processing is important so that families aren’t left languishing in detention for years, but speed can’t come at the expense of fairness and accuracy,” said Mr de Kretser.

Powers at sea

The Bill seeks to amend the Maritime Powers Act 2013 to effectively license the Government to breach international law and the rules of natural justice when conducting boat turn-backs and detaining asylum seekers at sea.

“The Bill expands the Government’s powers at sea whilst at the same time dramatically cutting the judiciary’s oversight of them. This combination of increased power and decreased legal scrutiny is particularly concerning given the secrecy currently surrounding ‘on-water’ operations,” said Mr de Kretser.

The joint submission recommends that the Bill not be passed.

“Both at sea and within Australian territory, this Bill will expand government power, widen personal ministerial discretions, exclude international law and the rules of natural justice and sideline the courts. It will increase Government power but decrease the checks and balances on its exercise. The Bill should be rejected outright,” said Mr de Kretser.