Improvements for Asylum Seekers Do Not Go Far Enough

May 20, 2009 Updated: May 21, 2009

Abioseh Kamara from Medecins Sans Frontieres, peers out from an exhibition refugee camp built in the centre of Sydney last year to raise awareness of asylum seekers. (Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)
Abioseh Kamara from Medecins Sans Frontieres, peers out from an exhibition refugee camp built in the centre of Sydney last year to raise awareness of asylum seekers. (Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)
The Australian Immigration Department has improved under the Rudd Government but attitudinal change is still needed, say refugee advocates.

Francis Milne, from the Sydney-based Balmain For Refugees, says immigration officials are “kinder” in the detention centres than they were in the past, but there still needs to be greater effort in understanding asylum seekers.

A recent push by the Immigration Department to round up illegal immigrants has seen many asylum seekers wrongly accused of fudging their stay, said Ms Milne.

“The Government thinks they are here to earn money and they are sending that back home, but what they are doing is firstly trying to save themselves from being sent back where they would be persecuted and secondly to pay back the debt,” she told The Epoch Times.

As part of a Rudd Government initiative, Immigration Minister Chris Evans announced last year that his department would be implementing “the prompt resolution of a person’s immigration status”.

The minister said this was largely directed at those in detention, but this year there has also been a drive to catch illegal immigrants. Raids on restaurants and taxi companies are not infrequent, Ms Milne said.

Many of the illegal immigrants are asylum seekers who had their applications rejected some years ago and were then forced to go underground or be deported.

Chinese applicants are the largest group of asylum seekers, Ms Milne said, with Falun Gong practitioners, underground church members and political dissidents the three most represented in that group.

Most of these have already paid huge fees, up to $400,000, to migration agents or travel agents, in an endeavour to have their applications heard. The money is usually from the sacrifices of families or friends from the mainland and remains a debt that has to be paid back.

Ms Milne said the cases were usually long and complicated, but there seemed to be very little sympathy for those asylum seekers among immigration officials, she said.

“The fact they have been hiding for five or six years is the primary reason they have failed again.”

Sydney refugee advocate Geoff Gregory said many of those he has helped have been duped by “unscrupulous migration agents”.

To its credit, the Federal Government has made an effort to stamp out dodgy agents, but many of the recent cases are the result of agency bungling going back a decade.

Bad paper work, bad advice and very often total misrepresentation make it very difficult for non-English speaking asylum seekers to wend their way through the bureaucratic process, Mr Gregory said.

All of this is not helped by an intolerant attitude from immigration officials.

Mr Gregory cited one recent case, that of a female Falun Gong practitioner, who is being threatened with deportation despite evidence that she is a genuine Falun Gong practitioner and that the Chinese regime had harassed her family in China.

“The compliance officer spoke to her in a hectoring and bullying manner”, he said, “and refused to talk to me when the lady rang me in distress, even though I was the woman’s advocate in her dealings with the Department.”

Falun Gong practitioners act out the persecution they receive in China Refugee advocates say Australian Immigration officials often don't understand the fear many asylum seekers have. (Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)
Falun Gong practitioners act out the persecution they receive in China Refugee advocates say Australian Immigration officials often don't understand the fear many asylum seekers have. (Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)
Mr Gregory said the lady would be detained and tortured to renounce her faith should she be sent back to China and currently has an urgent request for ministerial intervention before the Ministerial Intervention Unit. However she “was still badgered and intimidated by the official” he said.

Mr Gregory said he will be putting in a complaint about the behaviour but it was not an isolated case.

For many refugees, an encounter with authorities or any government representative is an unsettling experience, as the home government is often the source of oppression.

Sydney lawyer and immigration agent Michaela Byers says immigration officials are often insensitive to those cultural differences.

An interview with the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) wielding its “inquisitorial” approach is particularly harrowing for anyone from a developing country, she said.

“They [refugees] say yes just to please the member, not to indicate the truth. It is a cultural thing.”

Ms Byers said she is pleased that Labor has introduced an interview process for the initial refugee applications, but says a lot of problems stem from the RRT.

The RRT has 13 full-time and 79 part-time members. They are not specifically trained, requiring only a post graduate degree for selection, and can accordingly be unpredictable and random in assessment.

“They reject on the grounds of credibility,” said Ms Byers. “Any documents from China, they say: ‘They are fake and we don’t believe you’. They are awful,” she said.

Ms Byers believes the RRT is costly to the tax payer and the cause of much delay.

Over the years, she has made many complaints to the Government about the RRT and individual RRT members, but to little avail.

Ms Byers said she would like to see the RRT removed altogether and the process proceed directly to the courts “where it usually ends up anyway”.

“The department will take the assessments far more seriously if they are going directly to the courts,” she said.