Weekly media wrap - 19 May 2018

A significant number of athletes who went missing during the Commonwealth Games have sought asylum in Australia. Five athletes were granted bridging visas in Canberra while their claims for protection are assessed. Refugee advocates claimed they had helped many others lodge applications for protection; some estimated up to 100 people nationally could be seeking refugee status. 

The Guardian Australia reported that the Department of Home Affairs is withdrawing income support and housing from up to 100 refugees and asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus Island who are in Australia for medical treatment. The group will receive a final departure bridging visa E, which includes the right to work but no financial assistance. Refugee advocates said the group was largely made up of family groups and elderly people with serious physical and mental health issues.

Amnesty International criticised the Australian Government for reducing critical health services on Manus Island. A report by the organisation labeled cuts to health care 'inexplicable' in an environment with one of the highest rates of mental illness in the world. Meanwhile, an Iranian refugee, Fatemah, and her 17-year-old son were returned to Nauru from Taiwan against medical advice. Fatemah and her son were transferred to Taiwan to receive critical heart surgery and treatment for severe mental illness respectively. 

Bill Shorten said a future Labor government would not place time limits on offshore immigration detention, despite a draft party platform prepared for Labor's national conference in July calling for asylum seekers to not be held on Manus Island and Nauru longer than 90 days.

In international news, Greece’s parliament passed a bill to ease overcrowding on its island refugee camps – which currently hold more than double their capacity – and to make asylum procedures simpler and faster. Human rights groups criticised the bill for also shortening appeals processes. 

Weekly media wrap - 12 May 2018

Malaysian police intercepted a boat carrying 131 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, bound for Australia or New Zealand. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the people smuggling operation had been running since mid-2017. In response, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said ‘the need for Operation Sovereign Borders is as vital today as it was when it began.’

In relation to refugees in Papua New Guinea, Minister Dutton said resettlement to another country was very unlikely. Refugees in the country hope to be resettled under an agreement between Australia and the United States entered into in 2015. While the agreement provides for the resettlement of up to 1250 refugees from PNG and Nauru, the United States is under no obligation to accept that number.

In Nauru, Iranian and Somali refugees seeking resettlement to the United States have been rejected, apparently in line with the Trump Administration ‘travel ban’. The Guardian reported that 85 refugees have been resettled from Manus Island and 162 from Nauru. UNHCR pointed out that over 80 per cent of asylum seekers transferred by Australia to PNG and Nauru have been recognised as refugees, therefore requiring a durable solution.

In Rome, seventeen people applied to the European Court of Human Rights claiming that Italy violated absolute norms of human rights law in providing aid and assistance to Libyan border authorities. A number of the applicants, who were rescued at sea and returned to Libya in November 2017, were allegedly detained and treated inhumanely.

Weekly media wrap - 5 May 2018

A Federal Court judge delayed a decision regarding an asylum seeker family facing deportation to Sri Lanka. The judge adjourned to review the arguments before making her decision, requesting the Department of Home Affairs not to deport the family. Residents of the family’s small Queensland town have protested at the Federal Court, asking for the family to be allowed to return home. The family of four had overstayed their bridging visa by one day.

Penny Wong, Labor leader in the Senate, indicated that her party should be advocating for a limit on the time asylum seekers spend in detention, in response to a poll that found 50 per cent of voters support a 90-day limit on holding asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull accused Labor of ‘rolling out the welcome mat to the people smugglers’.

A United Nations Security Council delegation commenced a visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar this week. In Bangladesh the delegation was witnessing the circumstances of Rohingya Muslims in camps housing the refugees who fled Myanmar and the military-led violence. Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed in December to begin repatriating the refugees in January. The UNHCR and Bangladesh recently finalised a memorandum of understanding to ensure the repatriation process must be ‘safe, voluntary and dignified ... in line with international standards’.

US immigration officials ­announced that a busy border crossing was at capacity to process asylum seekers, in advance of hundreds of Central Americans arriving to the US border to ask for asylum. The migrant caravan received attention after the US Government called it a threat to America. 

Weekly media wrap - 28 April 2018

Former commissioner of the Australian Border Force, Roman Quaedvlieg, admitted that the ABF has often obstructed genuine medical transfers required for asylum seekers on Nauru. Ongoing tension remains between the ABF and medical practitioners regarding medical transfers out of offshore processing, with the transfer of many critically ill patients being refused or delayed. These admissions come at a time when the Australian Government’s health contractor has deemed medical facilities on Nauru as unsafe for surgery.

In related news, 12-year old asylum seeker boy, Ali, released a series of videos from his tent in Nauru, describing his state of despair and the severe depression of his mother and brother. Doctors have recommended for over a year that Ali’s mother be transferred to Australia to seek urgent medical treatment, and concerns have also been raised about the mental health of Ali himself after several attempts at self-harm.

Indonesian fishermen rescued a boatload of 76 Rohingya refugees off the coast of Aceh, Indonesia. The refugees, fleeing Myanmar, claimed to be seeking to reach Australia.

Meanwhile, Indonesian Police, with assistance from Australian Federal Police, busted a complex people-smuggling network planning to transport fake Rohingya refugees to Australia. The three alleged people smugglers are said to be Rohingya, Bangladeshi and Indonesian, and had allegedly organised fake papers for six Bangladeshi men previously residing in Malaysia, with the papers stating they were Muslim Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar.

A political debate was sparked following proposals that the Australian War Memorial commemorate navy personnel involved in Operation Sovereign Borders, including those who were involved in the policy of boat turnbacks. Various Labor and Greens MPs have described the idea, proposed by the memorial’s director Brendan Nelson, as igniting culture wars on the sensitive topic of asylum seeker policy and politicising Australia’s armed forces.

Weekly media wrap - 22 April 2018

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said that it had not received any asylum applications from South African white farmers, after Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton expressed interest in the farmers in March. UNHCR further suggested that the group would not qualify for refugee status, noting that ‘[u]nder the 1951 Refugee Convention, a person must be outside their country of origin in order to claim asylum.’

The Australian High Court unanimously upheld a fast-track refugee assessment process introduced in 2014 to handle the claims of 30,000 asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat before 2013.

Fifty refugees will soon depart Papua New Guinea and Nauru for resettlement in the United States, under a bilateral agreement between the Australian and American governments. According to The Guardian, 145 refugees have already left Nauru and 85 have left Papua New Guinea.

Refugee advocacy groups are lobbying the Australian Government to create a private refugee sponsorship avenue in Australia. The proposed Community Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (CRSI) would begin with 5000 additional places per year, in addition to Australia’s existing humanitarian intake. 

Weekly media wrap - 14 April 2018

An Afghan refugee on Manus Island was stabbed with a screwdriver in his shoulders, back and neck after refusing to hand over his phone to three men in the town of Lorengau. The man was given basic treatment at Lorengau hospital but began to have breathing difficulties after he returned to the accommodation compound. Fellow refugees called a doctor in Australia for medical advice, claiming later that cutbacks to Australian-funded medical services on the island forced them to do so.

Meanwhile, the Australian Medical Students Association protested against Australia's offshore detention system. The group argued that the policy is unacceptable and inhumane.

Sky News reported that the Australian Government asked New Zealand to keep its offer of resettling 150 refugees on the table, despite refusing the offer in public. Government papers obtained by Sky News showed the Australian Government wanted a backup plan in case the US resettlement deal was unsuccessful.

Shadow Minister for Immigration Shayne Neumann said the Labor Party supports all eligible refugees having the option to apply for resettlement in the US, including those who are in Australia for medical treatment. Neumann argued that such a policy would allow refugee families separated between offshore detention and Australia to be reunited.

In international news, US National Guard members started arriving at the US-Mexico border, following a direction by President Donald Trump. On Trump's orders, Defense Secretary James Mattis authorised the funding for up to 4000 National Guard troops for the operation to stop migrant crossings. 

Weekly media wrap - 8 April 2018

The South African government claimed that Australia retracted its plans to fast-track visas to white South African farmers. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton denied that his offer of humanitarian support had been withdrawn and is reportedly considering ‘several’ applications.

Nauru ended a long standing agreement that allowed appeals to the High Court of Australia. The move will have a significant impact on asylum seekers held on Nauru, who will have ‘virtually no rights if rights of appeal to the high court are taken away’, according to human rights lawyer George Newhouse.

Humanitarian migrants from specified countries, including South Sudan, Somalia and Iran, were excluded from resettlement under Australia’s Community Support Program. Eight priority countries were determined for inclusion in the Program: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Bhutan, Syria and Iraq. Members of Australia’s South Sudanese community criticised the exclusion, citing discrimination.

Peter Dutton argued that the 1951 United Nations refugee convention is outdated and should be reviewed by ‘like-minded’ countries. He suggested that rather than countries accepting a ‘token’ number of displaced people, support should be given to international refugee camps. Madeline Gleeson, from the Kaldor Centre for International Law, argued that international support and resettlement were both critically important and that ‘one cannot replace the other’.

International advisors warned that the coming monsoon season could result in ‘enormous deaths’ among the 700,000 Rohingya currently living in refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. A repatriation deal between Myanmar and Bangladesh has been delayed, forcing a race against time to prepare new homes on a Bangladeshi island before the monsoons arrive.