Australia should rethink refugee policy

Dean and Head of Griffith Law School Pene Mathew
Griffith Law School Dean Professor Pene Mathew

Australia’s refugee policy subverts the system of international refugee protection and moves us further away from the goal of fair responsibility and sharing according to Griffith Law School Dean Professor Penelope Mathew.

During a free public lecture at the Griffith Film School last night, Professor Mathew said it was ironic that Australia had been the sixth country to sign up to the Refugee Convention in 1954, given its current stance on asylum seekers.

She said the resettlement arrangements between Australia and Papua New Guinea and Australia and Nauru sought to “completely transfer all responsibility both for refugee protection and the durable solution resettlement to those two states”.

“Australia has inverted the moral responsibility of resettlement by sending asylum seekers to developing countries to evade its hard legal obligations to offer asylum.

“In practice, however, it is clear that Australia is effectively running the show, and as a matter of international law, it cannot simply escape all liability for what goes on in detention centres.”

Professor Mathew said if Australia was serious about gaining true regional cooperation on refugee protection, and respect for the institution of asylum, it would shoulder its own responsibilities without complaint and encourage other countries in the region to consider becoming a party to the Refugee Convention.

“Many things should be put on the table,’’ she said.

“One idea is twinning resettlement places in Australia with local integration of refugees, or at least better rights protection for refugees, in countries in the region, on the basis that this might diminish the people-smuggling trade and benefit local economies.

But this would require a commitment to refugee protection, and, therefore, compassion, Professor Mathew said.
“And it appears the Australian public’s compassion for boat arrivals has waned. Politicians may reflect, reinforce or generate a lack of compassion with voters but I believe the present budget may contain a cautionary tale.

“Be wary of allowing your representatives to run with the idea that compassion is expendable, lest you find yourselves consigned to the category of expendables.”

“It is no surprise that a government given a green light to treat vulnerable asylum seekers badly should turn around and treat vulnerable Australian citizens badly.”

Professor Mathew presented the annual Arts, Education & Law public lecture at the Griffith Film School, South Bank on July 17.

She specialises in refugee law, human rights and international law, and has worked as a consultant on the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Human Rights Standards for Immigration Detention.