Major Refugee Groups Slam Boat Turn-Backs As Labor Mulls Policy Shift


The national umbrella organisations for refugee and asylum seeker groups has condemned calls for Labor to adopt the Coalition policy of boat turn-backs, with other major groups reiterating their ongoing opposition.

Tim O’Connor, communications director at the Refugee Council, said the peak body absolutely maintained its opposition to the policy, and that members had been frustrated by reports suggesting refugee groups could be coming around to the policy.

“It puts Australia on the wrong side of the international community,” he said. “It’s a short-term fix for an issue the whole world needs to face together”.

O’Connor’s comments come as Labor mulls a shift in the area, potentially opening the way for the party to accept the practice of intercepting boats ferrying asylum seekers toward Australia and turning them back out to sea. The Labor for Refugees group, meanwhile, is agitating internally for a clear rejection of the policy.

The issue of turn-back has remained on the political agenda since it was revealed the Coalition likely made cash payments to people smugglers to get them to turnaround.

Despite the criticism this inspired from Labor, the party is far from settled in its position on the policy, which is likely to be debated at its national conference in late July.

In an article published by Guardian Australia on Monday, Welcome To Australia National Director Brad Chilcott – who is also a South Australian Labor delegate – weighed in, encouraging the party to accept the policy and help neutralise the issue politically.

But Chilcott’s comments have infuriated other segments of the refugee support community.

Penny Howard, from the Unions For Refugees group, said the organisation remained “totally opposed” to turn-backs.

If Labor were to adopt the turn-back policy it would take the party further from the official policy of the ACTU, which opposed offshore detention and processing as well as turn-backs at its 2015 congress.

Amnesty International also opposes turn-backs, and a spokesperson pointed New Matilda back to its recent statements.

“In order to prevent refugees from being returned to persecution, all asylum claims should be subjected to a fair and rigorous assessment process, with translation and legal representation offered,” the human rights group said in a April statement.

“Basic screening procedures at sea cannot be relied upon to make such life and death decisions.”

O’Connor said “many” of the 200 groups the Refugee Council represents had contacted the peak body to reaffirm their opposition to the policy since Chilcott’s comments.

“People are very, very frustrated,” he said. “Some people were very angry that this issue would come up. Ultimately, what we’ve seen in refugee policy is that every time a harsh policy gets introduced, it doesn’t allow a better outcome for refugees and asylum seekers.”

“No-one wants to see deaths at sea but the policy we’ve got at the moment just ensures people are pushed away to die somewhere else.”

In June, a boat carrying 65 people reportedly crashed into a reef after being turned back by Australia.

Speaking to New Matilda, Chilcott defended his position, and said he did not intend to speak on behalf of other organisations.

He said Welcome to Australia wanted thousands more refugees settled in Australia “without fear-mongering or vilification”.

“I’m not calling turn-backs a good thing, I think they are a bad thing. I’m saying both parties have made it clear they are not going to allow boats to arrive with people seeking asylum, both of them have made that really clear.”

Chilcott, who has previously worked for South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill as well as Tony Burke during his brief stint as Immigration Minister, said he wanted to see the focus shift away from boats.

“It’s time for us to focus on making life better for all the people we really care about and focusing our attention on achievable change.”

Prominent Labor Right MPs this week expressed open support for the policy, while Shadow Immigration Minister Richard Marles and Leader Bill Shorten have remained non-committal.

Outspoken MP Melissa Parke issued a statement earlier in the week criticising the turn-back policy.

“The people turned back, the majority of whom, past experience has shown, are genuine refugees, will still be fleeing persecution, will still be seeking a safe haven and will still suffer the uncertainty, the fear and the lack of rights that are features of transit countries,” she said.

“The question of what happens to them — do they die on a different sea, or in an airless container en route to Europe, are they jailed for working, or sent back to their country of persecution? These questions seem not to feature in our discussion of boat turn-backs, but they should.”

It’s the kind of unequivocal language avoided by Shorten and Marles so far.

“We retain concerns about turn-backs, it is a really difficult area and there are a range of views on this issue within the party and out there in the community. It’s complex and I understand those different views,” Marles said this week.

“We are going to review all of our policies in the lead up to the election and I’ve got no doubt that these matters will be discussed at Conference in a month or so.”

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