Refugee Review Tribunal ‘gets it right’

Date: July 3, 2013


By David Wroe, Bianca Hall

The former head of the government’s own refugee tribunal has dismissed Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr’s claims a flood of ”economic migrants” has been wrongly classed as refugees because the system is too soft.

Denis O’Brien, a leading lawyer who headed the Refugee Review Tribunal for five years until June last year, said Australia would be in danger of breaching its obligations under the refugee convention if it tried to tighten the criteria by which asylum is assessed.

”I’ve been surprised, I must say, by the commentary,” Mr O’Brien said. ”Members of the Refugee Review Tribunal … have to apply the definition … under the refugees convention,” he said. ”So I don’t see a lot of scope for tightening up without sort of running afoul of … the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Senator Carr last week signalled a tightening of the way asylum seekers were assessed, amid fresh political sparring on the sensitive issue between Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the Coalition.

On Tuesday, opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison sharpened his attacks, declaring that to ”stop the boats”, Australia must help its northern neighbours ”stop the planes” – referring to the passage of asylum seekers to countries such as Indonesia from which people smugglers operated.

Mr Morrison said a crucial component of an effective regional solution was bolstering the capacity of Indonesia and Malaysia to control the number of asylum seekers passing through their airports.

Senator Carr has said many or even most people arriving by boat were ”economic migrants”, not refugees – particularly middle-class Iranians, who were ”increasingly not people fleeing persecution”.

It is understood Australia is seeking ways to return failed Iranian asylum seekers home, as it has done with Sri Lankans.

Senator Carr said Australian diplomatic missions in source countries would be called on to make a bigger contribution to asylum assessments. ”There’s some evidence that the tribunals have not been hard-headed enough in looking at the circumstances.”

Mr O’Brien contradicted this, saying the tribunal had detailed and up-to-date information on conditions in source countries from a range of sources.

In a vigorous defence of the system, Mr O’Brien – who is the chief lawyer for the Truth, Justice and Healing Council of the Catholic Church – said he did not believe he had ever made an incorrect decision as a tribunal member. ”By and large, the Refugee Review Tribunal gets it right.”

The government and the Coalition are suggesting the 90 per cent approval rate for asylum applications seems too high. Mr Morrison has said a Coalition government would look closely at the tribunal to see if it was working.

Mr Morrison, who returned from meetings with Indonesian officials on Monday, said ”there’s no doubt” Indonesia felt it was shouldering more than its share of the region’s asylum seeker burden: ”There is an awareness, generally, that people are coming there because of the situation in Australia”.

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