Australia announced on Friday that it would no longer accept refugee claims from Sri Lankans and Afghans, saying the situations in those countries has improved enough that their people may no longer need to seek protection elsewhere.
The suspension of refugee claims comes as the government struggles to cope with an influx of illegal boatloads of asylum seekers who have filled an offshore detention centre and fuelled a political debate over immigration policies. Most of the boat people who reach Australian waters are from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.
“People aren’t being denied their right to seek asylum but it’s been suspended,” Immigration Minister Chris Evans told reporters in Canberra.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said the decision was sparked by the end of the two-decade civil war in Sri Lanka and the improved situation of minorities in Afghanistan. He said other countries have already stopped processing asylum claims from Sri Lanka, but Australia may be the first to suspend Afghan applications.
“The Australian government believes that asylum seekers should only be granted the right to live in Australia if they are genuinely in need of protection,” said a joint statement issued by the ministers for immigration, foreign affairs and home affairs.
Asylum seekers are a hot-button political issue in Australia, particularly since the current government relaxed immigration policies, reducing the time would-be refugees spend in detention before their applications are processed and dropping a requirement that they must renew their visas every five years.
The opposition claims that those changes led to the tenfold increase in illegal boat people in 2009 over the previous year. They say the illegal arrivals drain money and resources and would more than welcome if they applied through the established U.N. refugee process.
The Christmas Island detention centre - built for 800 people - now holds about 1,500 in tents and overflow buildings. In recent weeks, dozens of rejected asylum claimants have been transferred to the mainland to await deportation because of the lack of space at Christmas Island as at least 1,800 more people have arrived by boat this year.
Mr. Evans said asylum seekers already in Australian detention would have their claims processed. Any arrivals after Friday’s announcement would be taken to the Christmas Island detention centre until the suspension was lifted or until they could be safely returned home.
Hassan Varasi, a leader of the Afghan community in the southern city of Adelaide, said the government’s decision was misinformed.
“It’s not the right thing to do,” said Mr. Varasi, who came to Australia by boat in 1991. “In Afghanistan, the situation on the ground is very volatile and that is why the U.S. government decided to send more troops there. It’s very contradictory what the Australian government is doing, assuming the situation has changed for the better.”
The Australian Human Rights Commission said it was concerned about the government’s decision.
“We are extremely concerned that this suspension could result in the indefinite detention of asylum seekers, including families and children already in distress,” Commission President Cathy Branson said in a statement. “We have real concerns that this policy shift could lead to arbitrary detention and take Australia down a path that is at odds with our international human rights obligations.”
On Thursday, the Australian navy rescued 70 people from a sinking boat in Australian waters in the Indian Ocean. The passengers, who said they wanted to come to Australia, would be the last allowed to file refugee claims with Australia under the new standards.
That boat was the 38th to arrive in Australian waters this year, bringing a total of more than 1,800 asylum seekers.
The government also announced stricter punishments against people smugglers and created a new offense of providing material support for people smuggling.
Keywords: Asylum seekers,