UNHCR accuses government of breaching undertaking over refugee cases



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Filippo Grandi urged an immediate end to Australia’s offshore processing of refugees.
Martial Trezzini/EPA

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi, has accused Australia of breaking its word by refusing to allow refugees on Manus Island and Nauru with family in Australia to settle here – a claim denied by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

In a strongly worded statement on Monday, Grandi said that last November the UNHCR “exceptionally” had agreed to help with the relocation of refugees to the US, when the Turnbull government struck a deal with the outgoing Obama administration.

“We agreed to do so on the clear understanding that vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle there,” Grandi said.

But “UNHCR has recently been informed by Australia that it refuses to accept even these refugees, and that they, along with the others on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, have been informed that their only option is to remain where they are or to be transferred to Cambodia or the United States,” Grandi said.

This meant some people with serious medical conditions or who had had traumatic experiences such as sexual violence could not receive the support of close family members who are living in Australia, he said.

“To avoid prolonging their ordeal, UNHCR has no other choice but to endorse the relocation of all refugees on Papua New Guinea and Nauru to the United States, even those with close family members in Australia.”

A spokesperson for Dutton responded to Grandi’s statement by saying the government’s position “has been clear and consistent” – people transferred to regional processing centres “will never settle in Australia”.

On the ABC’s 7.30, Volker Turk, the UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, elaborated on the claim.

He said the UNHCR went into its facilitation role “after long discussions with Australian government officials”.

“We had a lot of meetings with the government, including myself with the minister of immigration in November,” he said.

“There was no doubt in our mind – and this is what we put forward to the minister at the time – that we would present to him cases that are compelling humanitarian, with close family links to Australia. We were hoping that, indeed, Australia would consider them favourably within the discretion that the minister has at his disposal.”

Pressed on whether Dutton gave any assurance that he would actually allow those people to resettle in Australia, Turk said: “He didn’t give us assurances because we didn’t present cases yet. But he did agree that we would be able to present such cases.”

“Of course we went into this agreement on the understanding that, indeed, Australia would be part of the solution for a handful of compelling humanitarian cases with strong family links in Australia.”

Only 36 people had so far been identified with such links, he said.

On the basis of the understanding that it had the UNHCR “presented these compelling cases”, Turk said.

Grandi said these vulnerable people who had already had four years in “punishing conditions” should be reunited with their families in Australia. This would be the “humane and reasonable” course.

“The Australian government’s decision to deny them this possibility is contrary to the fundamental principles of family unity and refugee protection, and to common decency,” he said.

Grandi said Australia’s offshore processing policy “has caused extensive, avoidable suffering for far too long”.

“Four years on, more than 2,000 people are still languishing in unacceptable circumstances. Families have been separated and many have suffered physical and psychological harm,” he said.

The UNHCR has referred more than 1,000 refugees to the US over the past eight months. A further 500 people are waiting for the outcome of their refugee claims, being processed by authorities in PNG and Nauru. The American deal provided for the US to take up to 1,250.

US President Donald Trump made it clear in his much-publicised phone conversation with Malcolm Turnbull that he hated the deal, though he has said he will honour it.

But so far no-one has been settled. The US, which is doing its own assessments, has been slow, and now America has filled its much-reduced refugee program for the year ending September. This has stalled any prospect of departures until the new year starts in October.

Meanwhile the Manus centre is due to close on October 31, and authorities there are trying to push people out of it.

Asked on Sky on Sunday whether there was any circumstance under which the government would allow some people to come to Australia, Dutton said: “People will not be coming to Australia … the government has said it consistently”.

He said this consistent position had been part of the reason for the success in stopping the boats. “We’ve taken the people-smuggling model away from the people smugglers. People don’t believe that they can get to Australia by paying their money and if that fails then we will see a recommencement of boats.”

Pointing to the earlier 1,200 drownings at sea, Dutton said that under the Coalition’s “Operation Sovereign Borders we’ve not seen a single death at sea”.

Grandi said the UNHCR fully endorsed the need to save lives and prevent exploitation by people smugglers.

“But the practice of offshore processing has had a hugely detrimental impact. There is a fundamental contradiction in saving people at sea, only to mistreat and neglect them on land.”

He urged an immediate end to Australia’s offshore processing and for it to offer solutions to its victims “for whom it retains full responsibility”.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie tweeted:

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The ConversationLabor called on the government to release the details of the US-Australia resettlement agreement, including any side deal made with the UNHCR.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/4arpi-6d25f9?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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European Court Rules Against Turkey’s Religion ID


Designation on identification cards used to discriminate on basis of religion.

ISTANBUL, February 5 (CDN) — A European court on Tuesday (Feb. 2) ordered Turkey to remove the religious affiliation section from citizens’ identification cards, calling the practice a violation of human rights.

Religious minorities and in particular Christian converts in Turkey have faced discrimination because of the mandatory religion declaration on their identification cards, which was enforced until 2006. Since then, citizens are allowed to leave the “Religion” section of their IDs blank.

The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) “is a good thing,” said Zekai Tanyar, president of the Turkish Protestant Alliance, citing prejudices against Christian converts.

“[Religion on the ID] can cost people their jobs,” he said. “It has been known to affect whether they get a job or not, how people look at them, whether they are accepted for a post or an application of some sort. Therefore I think [the ruling] is a good and appropriate thing.”

Tanyar said the same principles would apply in the case of Muslims living in a country that had prejudices against Muslims. For converts in Turkey having to state their religion on their ID cards, “in practice, and in people’s experience, it has been negative.” 

The ECHR ruling came after a Turkish Muslim national filed a petition challenging that his identification card stated his religion as “Alevi” and not Muslim. Alevis practice a form of Shia Islam that is different from that of the Sunni Muslim majority.

The court found in a 6-to-1 vote that any mention of religion on an identity card violated human rights. The country was found to be in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights – to which Turkey is a signatory – specifically Article 9, which deals with freedom of religion and belief; Article 6, which is related to due process; and Article 12, which prohibits discrimination.

The presence of the “religion” box on the Turkish national identification card obliges individuals to disclose, against their will, information concerning an aspect of their personal convictions, the court ruled.

Although the government argued that indication of religion on identity cards did not compel Turks to disclose their religious convictions, the ECHR found that the state was making assessments of the applicant’s faith, thus breaching its duty of neutrality and impartiality.

In a statement on the verdict this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the ruling was in line with the government’s intentions.

“I don’t see the ECHR decision as abnormal,” he said, according to Turkish daily Taraf. “It’s not very important if it is removed.” 

The ECHR is independent of the European Union, which Turkey seeks to join. The rulings of the ECHR are binding for members of the Council of Europe, of which Turkey is a member, and must be implemented.

A Step in the Right Direction

Human rights lawyers welcomed the decision of the ECHR, saying it is a small step in the direction of democracy and secularism in Turkey.

“It is related to the general freedom of religion in our country,” said human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “They assume everyone is Muslim and automatically write this on your ID card, so this is a good reminder that, first of all, everyone is not Muslim in this country, and second, that being a Muslim is not an indispensible part of being Turkish.”

The lawyer said the judgment would have positive implications for religious minorities in Turkey who are subject to intolerance from the majority Muslim population. 

In 2000 Turkey’s neighbor Greece, a majority Christian Orthodox country, lifted the religion section from national IDs in order to adhere to European human rights standards and conventions, causing tumult among nationals.

“In Turkey, Greece or whatever European country, racism or intolerance or xenophobia are not rare occurrences if [religion] is written on your card, and if you are a minority group it makes you open to racist, xenophobic or other intolerant behaviors,” said Cengiz. “There might be times that the [religious] declaration might be very dangerous.”

International Implications

It is not yet known what, if any, effect the ECHR decision could have on the rest of the Middle East.

Because of its history, economic power and strategic location, Turkey is seen as a leader in the region. Like Turkey, many Middle Eastern countries have a place for religious affiliation on their identification cards. Unlike Turkey, listing religious affiliation is mandatory in most of these countries and almost impossible to change, even under court order.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), religious identification is used as a tool to deny jobs and even basic rights or services to religious minorities in many Middle Eastern countries.

“It’s a serious problem from a human rights point of view,” said Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa for HRW, an international human rights organization. “It’s especially problematic when that requirement becomes a basis for discrimination.”

Stork said the identification cards shouldn’t have a listing for religion at all. He said the European decision may eventually be used in legal arguments in Middle Eastern courts, but it will be a long time before change is realized.

“It’s not like the Egyptian government is going to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gee, let’s do that,’” Stork said.

Egypt in particular is notorious for using religion on IDs to systematically discriminate against Coptic Christians and converts to Christianity. While it takes a day to change one’s religion from Christianity to Islam on their ID, the reverse is virtually impossible. 

Report from Compass Direct News