Ministerial intervention “playing God with sanctuary”: new report

Campaigns and Advocacy, Media Releases article written on the 21 Jun 2008

A dangerous gap exists in Australia’s refugee system that means people threatened with torture and gross human rights violations are being sent back to their country of origin after years in detention centres because they do not fit the technical definition of a ‘refugee’, according to a joint report by refugee policy group A Just Australia (AJA) and Oxfam released today.

Under the current system, a person who faces danger if they return to their place of origin might slip through the gaps and only get asylum by applying for refugee status, knowing they will be rejected, apply for a second time once they are rejected and then seek ministerial intervention – which may not be granted.

The report, Playing God with Sanctuary: A study of Australia’s approach to complementary protection obligations beyond the Refugee Convention, follows Immigration Minister Chris Evans’ comments in February that he was uncomfortable ‘playing God’, expressing concern about ‘the lack of transparency and accountability for those decisions’.

Oxfam Executive Director Andrew Hewett welcomed the Minister’s recent comments in favour of ‘complementary protection’, indicating the Rudd Government’s desire to move to a simpler and fairer process for applying for asylum. It would enable an asylum seeker to apply immediately under a number of different international human rights treaties like the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“Australia is now one of the few developed countries with no formal system of complementary protection and we urge Minister Evans to take action on this issue sooner rather than later as other countries like New Zealand have done recently,” Mr Hewett said.

The report recommends an urgent overhaul of the system which currently dictates that if a person is not considered a refugee because their persecution is unrelated to race, religion, nationality, or personal politics, there is no formal process in place for them to seek asylum in Australia.

AJA National Coordinator Kate Gauthier said the desperate need to overhaul this system was highlighted by this week’s media reports of the failed asylum seeker Mr Zhang, who committed suicide for fear of the torture he faced on return to China because of his involvement with pro-democracy groups.

“This system means that not only are people being sent back to countries where they face harm but beforehand they are spending years and years in detention while the process unfolds, costing them dearly and costing the Australian taxpayer between $200 and $1800 per detainee, per day,” Ms Gauthier said.

“The system must be made fairer and more efficient for both the asylum seeker and the Australian taxpayer.”
Released during Refugee Week, the report recommends a new, fairer model of complementary protection that simplifies and speeds up the process for seeking asylum. It was developed by Amnesty International, National Council of Churches and the Refugee Council of Australia and has been endorsed by 29 organisations across Australia.
Human Rights Commissioner Graeme Innes welcomed the report and urged the government to move forward on the issue.

“Australia has obligations not to return people to countries where they face torture or death, regardless of whether or not they fit the definition of refugee,” Mr Innes said. “The current system of ministerial discretion is not the appropriate way to ensure people are protected from some of the most serious human rights abuses.”

The term ‘Complementary Protection’ relates to the obligations Governments have to protect people from all over the world beyond the Refugee Convention alone (for example, the Convention Against Torture, of which Australia is a signatory). It covers a person who is in need of international protection because they cannot be returned to their home country safely, but who is not a ‘refugee’ as defined by the Refugee Convention. This includes people who are at risk of being tortured on return to their country; are fleeing civil war or generalised violence, or are stateless.

Case Study:
Jane (not her real name) is a young woman who was trafficked from Africa to a middle-east country where she was kept as a domestic servant and repeatedly sexually assaulted by her ‘owner’. She came to Australia with her ‘owners’ when they were on holiday. When she was attacked again, she ran away and claimed asylum in Australia. If returned she fears being trafficked again. She was recently rejected for a protection visa, and rejected under Ministerial Intervention.

For further information or interviews please contact Laurelle Keough at Oxfam Australia on 03 9289 9336 / 0409 960 100 /

For more information about Jane’s story and for further case studies contact Pamela Curr, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre 0417 517 075

Click here to download the report