PRIME Minister Malcolm Turnbull has refused to back down from his government’s plan to issue a lifetime ban on asylum seekers who try to enter Australia illegally by boat, rejecting cries of injustice raised by human rights advocates.
He defended the proposal he made on Sunday, saying it was within his government’s legal right to introduce such a measure.
“We have taken legal advice and we are satisfied it is within power and consistent with our international obligations,” he was quoted by Reuters as telling reporters in Yalata, South Australia, on Monday.
In the proposal, the Turnbull government wants to amend the 1958 Migration Act to prevent irregular maritime arrivals taken to any regional processing country from being able to apply for an Australian visa, even if they are listed as refugees. The amendment Bill is expected to make its way to the Australian Parliament as early as next week.
Under Australia’s tough immigration policy, asylum seekers currently intercepted while trying to reach the country’s shores by boat are sent immediately to its offshore processing centers in Papua New Guinea’s Manus island or the small South Pacific island nation of Nauru.
There are over 1,200 people currently at these camps, which rights advocates insist are more like open-air prisons instead of refugee processing centers.
If approved by Parliament, a permanent ban would mean that asylum seekers sent to these centers would never ever be allowed into Australia – whether as tourists, to do business or even as an Australian’s spouse – even if they are internationally recognised as refugees.
According to Reuters, rights groups say introducing such a ban would be a violation of the U.N. Refugee Convention, which states that no country should impose penalties on refugees due to their illegal entry or presence.
In a report on Sydney Morning Herald, refugee advocate Pamela Curr was quoted describing Turnbull’s bid as “appalling” and unnecessary.
“They don’t want to come here. They know what we’re like now. We’ve gone from a country which offered protection to a country that offers persecution,” she was quoted saying.
Turnbull’s proposal comes just weeks after global rights group Amnesty International released a damning report that documented the alleged abuse and mental torture suffered by refugees taken to Nauru.
In the 64-page report titled “Island of Despair” – the result of a combination of field and desk research carried out between July 1 and October – the group flagged the Australian government for flouting international rights conventions, saying the conditions at the camp that the refugees are subjected to amount to “torture” under international law.
It claimed that due to deteriorating mental health exacerbated by such conditions, security issues, and lack of adequate access to medical attention and education, many refugees were driven to inflicting self-harm and attempting suicide.
After the report was released, Turnbull denied the allegations on television and said during an interview that his government will stand by its strict immigration policies.
The prime minister insisted that the policy, though tough, was to prevent drownings at sea, noting that under the previous Labor leadership, there had been reports of 50,000 illegal arrivals and over 1,200 deaths.
“Now I know that’s a tough policy, I know that it’s hard but the alternative is what we had under Labor… 50,000 unauthorised arrivals, and 1,200 voices that were silenced that cannot go on Four Corners, that cannot go on the radio because they drowned at sea.”