Christmas Island ‘pressure cooker’ could explode after UN review

My following article appears in today’s edition of Crikey:

Christmas Island is a “pressure cooker”, according to one recently-returned refugee advocate. And the situation will blow up completely if the federal government is allowed to deport asylum seekers back to strife-torn Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

As more boats arrive at the offshore immigration processing centre — and more accommodation is hastily built for the more than 2000 residents — the federal government will come under more pressure to deny visas after a review of international protection guidelines by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

The agency has hinted at revising its rulings on Sri Lanka. Regional representative Richard Towle told the ABC the humanitarian situation in the country is “moving in the right direction and we think any review of the guidelines needs to reflect these positive changes”.

That could be devastating to those languishing on Christmas Island, according to Sonia Caton. The former director and principal solicitor at the Refugee and Immigration Legal Service is concerned by the possibility of  “refugee politics” within donor countries influencing the guidelines anticipated by the UNHCR, potentially putting asylum seeker’s lives at risk.

“The government is doing the job we signed up to do under the Refugee Convention and it is doing it well. But people need to be brought on-shore –- the place is a pressure cooker,” Caton told Crikey last week after returning from the island.

“It is currently only working because the largely Hazara asylum seeker population see people receive visas, so they sit and wait in crowded conditions because they have hope. Take that hope away and the management of the detention centre will change overnight.”

Caton says she knows of no illegitimate refugee claimants — “maybe there are a few opportunists, but I didn’t come across any” — and hopes the UNHCR will take into account current information from NGOs in Afghanistan to arrive at an accurate assessment of a very volatile and dangerous situation.

“Most of the 2000 asylum seekers in detention are Hazaras,” Caton said. “Those I represented were mostly farmers from the Ghazni Province. The Taliban are increasingly active there and have co-opted the Kuchi and Pashtuns to target ‘infidel’ Hazaras. Hazaras are starving and cannot access medical help because travelling on Taliban controlled roads is a dice with death or serious harm — hence the outflow of asylum seekers fleeing Refugee Convention persecution.”

Caton praised Immigration Minister Chris Evans for greatly improving the conditions of refugees in mandatory detention since 2008 though she still despairs at the increasingly long periods in detention offshore and presence of children in detention, despite departmental denials.

UNHCR does constantly update its country assessments. The last thorough examination of Sri Lanka was nearly one year ago, before the end of the 26-year-long civil war. But a number of other refugee experts have told Crikey it is highly unlikely the UNHCR will recommend the cessation of all refugee claims from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, allowing neither the Rudd government nor Liberal opposition to make credible claims of vastly improved security situations in both countries.

Caton said that the relatively few refugees reaching our shores is insignificant compared to the Iraqi and Afghan refugees sitting in countries like Jordan, Syria, Iran and Lebanon: “The [Australian] migration program has literally exploded over the past six to eight years, yet the humanitarian intake remains static year in and year out at a pathetic 14,000 a year, give or take 500…”

In 2002 Australia contributed more than $19 million to UNHCR and was its 12th largest donor. In 2008 this increased to $28 million but the ranking dropped to 13th. The Immigration Department says about 660 asylum seekers detained on Christmas Island have been given refugee status so far this year — more than half of the total 1,130 offered visas in 2009.

Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution

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