The tragedy on Manus

26 February 2014

Centrecare re-iterates the sentiments expressed by The Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office (ACMRO) of great sadness at the tragic loss of life on Manus Island.

The incident at Manus Island left a total of 77 people injured; 13 of these seriously, 1 critically and 1 tragically losing his life. Reports indicate that the above event was the culmination of weeks of frustration and desperation by people whose voices are not being heard.

The continued labelling and objectification through names such as ‘illegal arrivals’ and ‘boat people’, serves to generate unease and fear in the Australian community, but most importantly steers the public away from the reality that the people detained on Manus Island are ‘asylum seekers and refugees’.

The following excerpt from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s internet site gives valuable insight into who seeks asylum and our obligations as a country to the men, women and children that seek refuge:

Who are asylum seekers and refugees?
An asylum seeker is a person who has fled their own country and applied for protection as a refugee.
The United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, as amended by its 1967 Protocol (the Refugee Convention), defines who is a refugee and sets out the basic rights that countries should guarantee to refugees. According to the Convention, a refugee is a person who is outside their own country and is unable or unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their:

o race
o religion
o nationality
o membership of a particular social group or
o political opinion.

Asylum seekers or refugees and migrants have very different experiences and reasons for moving to another country. Migrants choose to leave their home country, and can choose where to go and when they might return to their home country. Asylum seekers and refugees, on the other hand, flee their country for their own safety and cannot return unless the situation that forced them to leave improves.

What are Australia’s human rights obligations in relation to asylum seekers and refugees?
Australia has international obligations to protect the human rights of all asylum seekers and refugees who arrive in Australia, regardless of how or where they arrive and whether they arrive with or without a visa.

While asylum seekers and refugees are in Australian territory (or otherwise engage Australia's jurisdiction), the Australian Government has obligations under various international treaties to ensure that their human rights are respected and protected. These treaties include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). These rights include the right not to be arbitrarily detained.

As a party to the Refugee Convention, Australia has agreed to ensure that asylum seekers who meet the definition of a refugee are not sent back to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened. This is known as the principle of non-refoulement.

Australia also has obligations not to return people who face a real risk of violation of certain human rights under the ICCPR, the CAT and the CRC, and not to send people to third countries where they would face a real risk of violation of their human rights under these instruments. These obligations also apply to people who have not been found to be refugees.

For an overview of the key human rights issues that arise from Australia’s approach to asylum seekers and refugees, see the Commission’s recent publication Asylum seekers, refugees and human rights: snapshot report 2013.

Our nations lack of adherence to the international agreements we have signed in relation to the rights of asylum seekers and refugees comes at a huge human cost. In addition it has the potential to seriously damage and undermine Australia’s human rights record, along with creating much negative interest in international circles. Both international media, and human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have become increasingly critical of Australia’s treatment of refugees.

The incident on Manus Island not only caused death to one person and injury to others, but placed innocent men, women and children at risk. Our approach to asylum seekers means that individuals and families fleeing from tragic conditions in their own countries are placed in very basic and uncomfortable detention facilities on an island in a remote part of the world. The lack of timely processing, the uncertainty about their future and the primitive conditions in which they are detained creates a situation that often leads to mental and physical illness. The loss of hope and increasing desperation that comes from living in such conditions for lengthy periods of time often results in self harm and sometimes suicides. This is not only a great sadness for them but also a stain on our collective soul.

Over many years the Immigration and Refugee policies of Australia have contributed to the existence of a beautifully rich tapestry within the Australian community, embracing cultures, cuisines and beliefs. Our migrants and refugees with their varied origins have contributed to making this the wonderfully diverse and interesting culture that we see today. Sadly in recent times we are seeing policies that lead to fear, marginalisation and a very marked lack of responsibility for the protection and valuing of human rights.

Centrecare continues to support the rights of asylum seekers to compassionate, safe and fair treatment in line with its belief in demonstrating the intrinsic worth of persons by respecting differences, cherishing individuality and nourishing dignity.