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Australia is set to deport over 100 Rohingya asylum-seekers to detention centres in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru in the coming weeks, in spite of accusations that the move would breach international human rights law.
It follows a decision by the former government in July to redirect all asylum-seekers to its poorer Pacific neighbours in an effort to stem the influx of boat people to Australia – which the newly elected conservative prime minister has vowed to uphold.
All new arrivals – of which 1,585 were recorded in August – will be sent onwards to Nauru or Manus Island in PNG where they will be resettled if successful, despite allegations of mistreatment and abuse at local detention facilities.
According to a local campaign group, at least 100 Rohingyas fleeing conflict and persecution in Burma’s western Arakan state are among those to arrive in Australia since the government announced its new policy.
A spokesperson for the Department of Immigration confirmed to DVB on Wednesday that 72 Burmese nationals and 284 stateless individuals – which is likely to include some Rohingyas – were set for removal.
Although he would not lay out a concrete time frame, he said that “regular transfers” of asylum seekers had taken place since July, with exceptions only being made for those with urgent medical needs.
“Everyone who’s arrived since 19 July is subject to transfer – initially to processing on Christmas Island and then onwards to either PNG or Nauru,” said the spokesperson.
Meanwhile Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who was sworn into office on Wednesday, has moved to implement an even more draconian immigration policy by authorising the navy to intercept and physically drag boats back to their country of origin, usually Indonesia.
“It’s so important that we send a message to the people-smugglers that from today their business model is coming to an end,” Abbott said at his inaugural ceremony.
Part of the AUS$440 million (US$397 million) scheme includes buying old fishing boats from Indonesia in a bid to prevent traffickers from using them, which activists say raises serious safety concerns for Rohingya refugees fleeing Burma.
Chris Lewa from the campaign group, the Arakan Project, described the plan as “totally ridiculous”, adding that it will only punish the victims and not the traffickers.
“It’s definitely not going to stop [the boats] that’s for sure,” Lewa told DVB on Thursday. “Here I’m asking [Rohingya] people in Malaysia if they are still planning to go to Australia, and they say ‘yes’.”
More than 300 Burmese nationals have arrived in Australia this year, along with nearly 2,000 stateless people – who are all counted as one group but include Rohingyas, Kurds, Palestinians and others.
Earlier this week a group of Australian lawyers vowed to challenge their government at the current UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, after criticising Abbott’s policy as tantamount to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”.
It follows reports that G4S, the security firm responsible for running the detention facility on Manus Island – under a scheme that will cost Australian taxpayers up to AUS$1 billion (US$950 million) – has been implicated in serious abuses against inmates, including rape and torture.
A recent investigation by The Guardian exposed “serious” gaps in the government’s oversight mechanisms for the company’s management of the Manus Island facility. But Australia has already laid out expansion plans for the centre, including cramming 10,000 more tents onto the island.
The UN Refugee Agency has accused Australia of subjecting asylum-seekers to “arbitrary detention that is inconsistent with international human rights law” and identified “significant shortcomings” in PNG’s protection mechanisms for processing refugees. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, Australia is obligated to assist victims of political oppression.
But a spokesperson for the Refugee Council of Australia (RCA) told DVB that the government – from both sides of the political spectrum – has actively “pursued policies to deflect responsibility for people seeking protection from persecution” over the past year.
“This not only contravenes Australia’s international human rights obligations, it undermines efforts to improve refugee protections in the Asia-Pacific region,” said Andrew Williams, Communications Manager at RCA.
“The treatment of Rohingya, who are often treated as ‘illegal’ or unwanted in their country of birth and in other places they seek asylum, highlights the need for much better answers and greater sharing or responsibility for refugee protection.”
It is unclear whether Rohingya refugees who are accepted in Nauru will ever be able to obtain citizenship status, while the Christian-majority PNG is considering adopting a bill that would prevent other religions from being openly practiced.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, who are denied citizenship in Burma, have fled the country since two bouts of communal clashes with Buddhists last year, which left nearly 140,000 displaced and 200 dead.