Weekly media wrap - 29 March 2016

The Australian government signed on to a regional agreement at the Bali Process Ministerial Conference, strengthening its commitment to blocking people smuggling in the Asia-Pacific region. The agreement, which is non-binding, recommends member nations consider alternatives to the detention of vulnerable people and allow longer stays in transit countries.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was questioned over Australia’s commitment to helping refugees in the region. Following the conference, the Immigration Department launched a telemovie aimed at deterring potential asylum seekers in the region. Described as a “key part” of the department’s anti-people smuggling strategy, the film cost taxpayers $6 million.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull linked the refugee crisis to this week’s terror attacks in Belgium, warning that “porous borders” were allowing terrorists into Europe. Belgium’s Ambassador to Australia, Jean-Luc Bodson, refuted the assertion and said it was dangerous to connect migration with terrorism.

Protests against offshore processing continued in capital cities around the country, with thousands of attendees marching at Welcome Refugee rallies on Palm Sunday. Organisers said more than 50,000 people participated across Australia. Speakers at the events, including Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and Executive Director of the Refugee Immigration and Legal Centre David Manne, said that public sentiment on refugees had changed and more compassionate treatment was wanted.

The rallies occurred as a group of asylum seekers in Nauru also launched peaceful protests, calling for better conditions at the centre. The Guardian quoted an asylum seeker advocate who said the group became upset after detention centre management restricted their Iranian new year celebrations. The protests continued for four days, with Good Friday marking 1000 days in detention for some asylum seekers.

The UNHCR suspended its activities in Greece, with a spokesperson stating the agency would not collude in the “unfair and inhumane” system precipitated by last week’s EU-Turkey deal. Medecins Sans Frontiers and Save the Children also stopped their involvement with centres on the Greek islands.

Human Rights Watch labelled the situation in Greece a humanitarian crisis and criticised the official response. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein raised concerns about the legality of the deal, as boats continued to arrive and refugees set themselves on fire in protest. Pope Francis joined international appeals for compassion during his traditional Good Friday address after washing the feet of refugees in a centre outside of Rome.

The European Commission proposed to reduce aid to Afghanistan under a secret plan, unless the government agreed to repatriate more than 80,000 Afghans denied refugee status in the region. Suggested incentives of the deal included exchanging failed asylum seekers for Afghan students at European universities.