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YLS Sale Symposium: International Protection Challenges Occasioned by Maritime Movement of Asylum-Seekers

by T. Alexander Aleinikoff

[T. Alexander Aleinikoff is the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees.]

Irregular maritime movement raises complex issues of “mixed migration” flows, life-risking sea crossings, varying state policies, well-ingrained smuggling and trafficking networks, and emerging regional processes.  Movement of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers by sea is a world-wide phenomenon, with Afghans, Sri Lankans, Rohingyas, and Bangladeshis, among others, travelling by boat in the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea; more than 60,000 persons a year (mostly Ethiopians) arriving in Yemen; sub-Saharan Africans and now increasingly Syrians and Palestinians from Syria seeking to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe; and several thousand Cuban and Haitian migrants interdicted each year in the Caribbean.

The central goal of UNHCR is that states adopt policies and practices that are protection-sensitive.  A protection-sensitive approach would, at a minimum, embrace the following core principles:

  • The norm of non-refoulement, which prevents forcible return of a person in need of protection, applies wherever a state has de jure or de facto jurisdiction  (that is, whether the individual is encountered on the high seas or within the territorial water of a state).
  • Effective application of the non-refoulement principle requires fair and timely procedures for assessing whether an individual in an irregular situation is in need of international protection.
  • During the time that refugee claims are being examined, persons must not be subject to arbitrary detention or inhumane or degrading treatment.
  • Persons recognized as in need of international protection should ultimately be afforded a solution (such as third country resettlement or lawful presence in the state in which their claim is assessed).

Rescue at Sea

The vessels used by irregular migrants are often unseaworthy, and search and rescue efforts are frequently required in order to save lives.  “Rescue at sea” standards are embodied in number of international instruments, but important gaps remains—particularly related to (1) where rescued migrants should be disembarked, and (2) how best to ensure the processing of asylum claims and the provision of solutions.  A UNHCR-hosted experts meeting on Refugees and Asylum-seekers in Distress at Sea (held in Djibouti in 2011) supported a Model Framework for Cooperation for rescue at sea operations.  The aims of the Framework are to reduce loss of life, ensure predictability regarding disembarkation, preserve the principle of non-refoulement, and foster burden-sharing. The expert group also supported the establishment of mobile protection teams that can respond in rescue at sea situations, including by providing assistance with the reception and processing of rescued persons.

In November of 2013, UNHCR launched the Central Mediterranean Sea Initiative (CMSI), which proposes a comprehensive strategy for the region that would strengthen search and rescue by E.U. authorities and private ships, identify safe places for disembarkation, and provide screening of migrants to assess protection needs and other grounds of vulnerability. As to burden-sharing, the CMSI recognizes that the location for assessment of refugee claims need not be the state of disembarkation and recommends the establishment of a joint processing pilot for persons rescued in international waters and the resettlement of persons found in need of protection. The Initiative also proposes measures to reduce irregular migration, including mass communication efforts in countries of origin highlighting the dangerousness of irregular movement at sea, the establishment of robust asylum and protection processes in North Africa, and the enhancement of legal migration opportunities.

Interdiction

Rescue at sea is a humanitarian response to migrants in danger on the high seas. Interdiction is a law enforcement activity undertaken to prevent irregular migration that seeks to avoid state migration rules and processes. The reasons for irregular migration are numerous: migrants for whom legal channels of migration are not available may seek to join family members or to obtain work; or persons involved in criminal activity may try to avoid detection by law enforcement officers. Of central concern to UNHCR are individuals who undertake irregular movement in order to flee from persecution, conflict or other situations of violence and seek to access international protection guaranteed by international law.

UNHCR recognizes that states have legitimate interests in law enforcement actions against smugglers and traffickers and migrants seeking entry outside of lawful avenues.  But we urge states to ensure that such efforts comply with international conventions and norms relating to refugees and human rights.  UNHCR’s Executive Committee has declared that “[i]nterception measures should not result in asylum-seekers and refugees being denied access to international protection, or result [in non-refoulement].” (Conclusion on Protection Safeguards in Interception Measures (Conclusion 97, 2003).)

Despite this well-recognized norm, we see alleged “tow-backs” of boats in the Mediterranean that result in the loss of life, “push-backs” in the Andaman Sea that seem to be instances of refoulement, and on-board screening and returns in the Caribbean that appear not to fully protect against non-refoulement.

Interdiction and return—without any process—raises obvious protection concerns (and was held in Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy to be a violation of European human rights norms).  Fortunately, it is not generally the rule, and states that intercept migrants at sea generally have policies and practices in place that they assert meet its duty to comply with international protection principles.  Thus, they may (1) screen and/or process intercepted asylum-seekers on the high seas (e.g., ship-board screening by the U.S. Coast Guard); (2) undertake extra-territorial processing (e.g., United States assessments of “screened-in” Cubans in Guantanamo), or (3) transfer interdicted asylum-seekers to other states for processing (the transfer of asylum-seekers by Australian authorities to Papua New Guinea and Nauru is one of several measures undertaken by Australia to deter irregular migration). (more…)

YLS Sale Symposium: Sale’s Legacy and Beyond (Part II)

by Guy Goodwin-Gill

[Guy S. Goodwin-Gill is a Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford and Professor of International Refugee Law, University of Oxford.]

Recent EU and ECHR jurisprudence on a range of State activities affecting refugees and asylum seekers has emphasized that fundamental rights are not just about freedom from torture or refoulement, but also about effective remedies.

What comes through in the judgments of the CJEU in N.S. and Puid, for example, is acceptance of the notion that fundamental rights may well require proactive, protective action – in the case of the Dublin system, a duty to assume responsibility wherever transfer may expose the individual to a serious risk of prohibited harm, such as refoulement or inhuman or degrading treatment. The European Court of Human Rights decision in M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece further supports this proposition, while that in Hirsi v Italy goes still further on the interception issue.

Other courts in other jurisdictions have been no less robust in defence of the displaced, this especially vulnerable group of asylum seekers who require special protection – the UK House of Lords in the Roma Rights case, facing up to a policy and practice clearly discriminatory by reference to race; the UK Supreme Court in EM (Eritrea), recognizing that any real risk of prohibited treatment, not just a systemic failure, was sufficient to require non-removal under Dublin; the European Court of Human Rights in M.S.S. v Belgium and Greece, also on Dublin transfers, but also on knowledge and risk, among others, and on the right to an effective remedy; and again in Hirsi v Italy; and the Australian High Court in Plaintiff M70.

Australia once actively promoted temporary refuge, then turned to mandatory detention as supposedly some sort of deterrent to boat arrivals; when that seemed to have little effect, it tried to emulate some of the interdiction practice. Interestingly till now, and as in the early days of US interdiction, it has expressly recognized its basic obligations towards the intercepted, and its goal, in theory, has been to accommodate non-refoulement, but to deny on-shore processing and even, from time to time, on-shore solutions.

What the M70 decision of the Australian High Court reveals, however, is that international obligations are difficult to wish away onto other States. In its earlier dealings with the remote island nation of Nauru, Australia had clearly been the principal in a ‘principal-agent’ relationship, paying the full costs of detention accommodation of the intercepted, relying on Nauru and distance to keep lawyers and journalists at bay, but impliedly accepting that it remained responsible internationally.

Behind M70, though, there was different thinking. It involved an agreement – intentionally not a binding treaty – to trade asylum seekers: 800 to go to Malaysia, 4000 to be resettled out of Malaysia over four years. The domestic legal background was a provision of the Migration Act which anticipated that the Minister would make a declaration, identifying a State as appropriate for such an arrangement, and as able to provide the requisite level of protection.

The High Court placed this agreement firmly within the context of an effort by Australia to ensure that its international obligations were met; but as a ‘protection exercise’, this meant that, as a matter of domestic law and statutory construction, Australia was obliged to ensure that those transferred enjoyed legal protection of their rights, not just practical protection; what is more, this meant more than just non-refoulement, but the protection also of other, Convention-related rights in the State of intended destination. (more…)

YLS Sale Symposium: The Globalization of High Seas Interdiction–Sale’s Legacy and Beyond

by Guy Goodwin-Gill

[Guy S. Goodwin-Gill is a Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford and Professor of International Refugee Law, University of Oxford.]

Before Sale, before Haitian interdiction even, there was ‘piracy’ off the coast of Thailand, tolerated and encouraged locally as a deterrent to landing; there was towing out to sea, even of unseaworthy vessels; there was the blind eye turned to the plight of those in distress; and somewhere in-between was the refusal to allow disembarkation of the rescued – an exercise of legal competence on a matter regulated in the past by practice and expectation, but never written into law.

No, there is nothing new here, and many are the ways by which States have sought to keep others away from their shores, particularly those in search of refuge. And yet despite the many novel forms of interdiction, I do not share many of the premises on which this conference appeared to be based. For example, I do not think that Sale itself has influenced the practice of States in any meaningful way. It may have encouraged elements within States to push the envelope of legality, but looking around at what goes on in the name of ‘migration management’, it’s hard to believe that they need any encouragement.

Nor do I think that courts which clarify the legal limits to permissible State action thereby invite executives just to look for other ways to avoid law and obligation. They do, of course, but that’s part of the tension inherent in societies operating under the rule of law. Nor do I think that the judgment of the Supreme Court in Sale counts for anything juridically significant, other than within the regrettably non-interactive legal system of the United States. Here, the Court ruled for domestic purposes on the construction of the Immigration and Nationality Act. What it said on the meaning of treaty was merely dictum and the Court was not competent –in at least two senses – to rule on international law.

At best, the judgment might constitute an element of State practice, but even here its international relevance can be heavily discounted. The Court failed, among others, to have regard to the binding unilateral statements made by the US when interdiction was first introduced, and the ten years of consistent practice which followed. And as any student of international law will tell you, practice and statements of this nature are highly relevant, particularly when against interest.

UNHCR, moreover, which is responsible for supervising the application of the 1951 Convention/1967 Protocol, protested the judgment at the time and has consistently maintained the position set out in its amicus brief to the Supreme Court (and in earlier interventions with the US authorities). Significantly, no other State party to the treaties has objected to UNHCR’s position, though the forum and the opportunity are readily available, such as the UNHCR Executive Committee, ECOSOC, or the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly. (more…)

YLS Sale Symposium: Interdiction of Asylum Seekers–The Realms of Policy and Law in Refugee Protection

by David Martin

[David A. Martin is the Warner-Booker Distinguished Professor of International Law, University of Virginia.]

I start with a high-altitude view of the history and contours of refugee protection, to provide perspective on the current use of interdiction – and also on the contrasting stances taken by the U.S. Supreme Court in Sale v. Haitian Centers Council (509 U.S. 155 (1993)) and the European Court of Human Rights in Hirsi Jamaa v. Italy (Application no. 27765/09, Eur. Ct. H.R. 10 (2012)).

Refugee protection is not, at its core, dependent on fixed or expansive legal obligations of states or other political actors.  Since Biblical times, refugees have been protected, even in the absence of treaty or legal edict.  These were policy decisions by political leaders, influenced by compassion, but also by pragmatic considerations that ranged from assessments of absorptive capacities, food supplies, and the tolerance level of the leader’s subjects or fellow-citizens; through perceived advantages to be gained if the refugees seemed a particularly skilled or enterprising lot; to judgments about whether the exodus would strengthen or weaken the state against its enemies.

Protection that rests on policy is uncertain and unpredictable – by definition not wholly or even principally guided by humanitarian considerations.  But it has nonetheless at many times afforded true shelter to multitudes.  And after 60 years of operation under the major international treaties relevant here, we can hardly say that treaties assure reliable and consistent humanitarian responses either.

Comes now a new generation of tribunals and treaty bodies that seem to believe they can end the modern era’s inconsistency and usher in a virtually pure humanitarian practice of refugee protection.  Their methods include reading selected provisions in refugee and human rights treaties quite expansively, deploying broad notions of a state’s jurisdiction – territorial and otherwise – and projecting onto the relevant treaties a mono-thematic conception of object and purpose, seeing only an objective to provide protection and issuing their interpretations accordingly.

This newly ambitious legal effort, most clearly exemplified in the Hirsi Jamaa decision, certainly is capable of improving protective outcomes for certain asylum-seekers in specific flight situations.  But there are reasons for deep skepticism that this idealistic effort to carpet the entire field with judicially enforced legal prescripts will somehow overcome or crowd out all those benighted considerations of tawdry policy that state leaders tend to take into account.  It may even interfere with efforts to optimize protection within the real-world constraints that government officials must account for.  I offer here four reasons for skepticism.

Original intent and government buy-in. 

First, this mono-thematic focus was not what states agreed to – not in 1951 or 1967, not in the European Convention on Human Rights.  The treaties have a more complex set of objectives.  Humanitarian shelter is one of them, to be sure, enough to motivate setting into law a floor reflecting modest but important commitments, focused on persons already present on the state’s territory – a floor, it must be emphasized, not a whole edifice.  Other important treaty objectives, given only muted expression but still decidedly on the minds of the diplomats creating the treaties, were to preserve the core of national control over migration by foreigners and also to protect against criminal and security threats.  There was no clear template for the mechanisms to be employed toward these ends, but states clearly regarded it as important to keep their protection commitments in balance with the sovereign right to make deliberate decisions about inbound migration.  At each stage governments provided clear signals that they were not writing a “blank cheque” (a frequent assertion in the travaux of the 1951 Convention).  They acknowledged that it would be good to do more, when possible, but they left the “more” in recommendations meant to inform ongoing policy decisions.

The dateline limitation in Article 1 of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees may be the clearest indication of this caution (treating as “refugees” only those who fled “as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951” – hence a largely known and finite population already present in the West European countries leading the drafting effort).  But strong markers of the same attitude also appear in the exclusion from coverage of persons who had committed serious crimes, and especially the broadly worded exception to the nonrefoulement  protection of Article 33 when “there are reasonable grounds for regarding” a person “as a danger to the security of the country” of refuge. Commentary at the time, even pieces written by scholars of strong humanitarian instincts, generally accepted that Article 33 did not include non-rejection at the frontier.

Some have suggested that the 1967 Protocol, which eliminated the dateline, should be seen as global acceptance of a more purely protective stance.   This claim has to downplay the continuing exclusions from treaty coverage of serious criminals and national security threats. But there is an even stronger indication that the UN General Assembly, in adopting the text of the Protocol, was not propounding an absolute bar on interdiction or other barriers to arrival.  That same year the General Assembly adopted a formal Declaration on Territorial Asylum (GA Res. 2312 (XXII), 22 U.N.GAOR Supp. (No. 16), at 81).  Article 3 is widely quoted for its general provision that seems at first to bar “measures such as rejection at the frontier.”  But the very next clause, often omitted by the commentators, states: “Exception may be made to the foregoing principle only for overriding reasons of national security or in order to safeguard the population, as in the case of a mass influx of persons.”  The General Assembly clearly did not consider non-rejection at the frontier an absolute or nonderogable obligation for states. Governments still insisted on keeping in their hands certain tools to meter their obligations or keep them politically manageable, albeit at a higher protective level than in pre-treaty days. The Sale decision essentially recognized this tradeoff at the foundation of the legal obligations in the Protocol.  The Court, like the Convention’s drafters, acknowledged that going further toward protection would be desirable in many circumstances – but that is a task for policy, not treaty obligation (509 U.S. at 188).

The insufficiency of alternatives.

Second, supporters of expansive readings of nonrefoulement sometimes counter that non-entrée policies, which include maritime interdiction but perhaps also strict visa regimes, are not necessary to serve the state’s interests in migration control and in stopping crime, terrorism, or spying.  Instead those aims can be addressed in a far more precise and scientific way through careful application of the governing definition, which requires an asylum seeker to show a “well-founded fear of persecution” on account of five specified grounds, and which also excludes serious criminals and security threats.

This is an attractive claim, and it seems to accept that the treaties embody a more complex set of objects and purposes.  But government officials generally are not reassured that such reliance will sustain the needed balance, because of hard experience with adjudication systems.  In fact we still are not very good at accomplishing timely and accurate asylum decisions, with sufficient checks against fraud, even though intensive effort and millions of dollars have been devoted to improving adjudication since the surge in asylum applications in the 1980s.  Moreover, as government officials see it, the problem is not just insufficient progress in procedures.  The substantive standard also keeps expanding, now reaching far beyond fear of persecution or the five familiar grounds – especially under the ECHR jurisprudence.

(more…)

YLS Sale Symposium: Sale’s Legacy– “Creative Legal Thinking” and Dynamic Interpretation of Refugee Law

by Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen

[Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen is Research Director at the Danish Institute for Human Rights and author of Access to Asylum: International refugee law and the globalisation of migration control (CUP, 2011), which won the Idman Award for best monograph in public international law.]

In 1992 President George HW Bush ordered the United States Coast Guard to stop all persons fleeing Haiti in international waters. When a majority of the United States Supreme Court upheld the legality of this interdiction program, it paved the way for more than 65,000 people being returned to Haiti with no assessment of any claims for political asylum. Beyond this, the Sale case could be argued to have two legacies – one political and one legal. US policy and Sale undoubtedly inspired many other countries to adopt similar interdiction schemes and perhaps a more general trend to speculate in circumventing obligations under international refugee law. Yet, Sale also prompted other courts and refugee advocates to pick up the torch, ensuring that international refugee law has developed dynamically in response to new patterns of migration control.

High seas interdiction forms parts of a wider set of deterrence measures to administratively or physically prevent refugees from accessing asylum. From visa controls to biometric scans, migration control is no longer something performed only at the perimeter of a state’s sovereign territory, but rather forms a set of progressive mechanisms to check travellers at every step of their prospective journey. A common trait of many of these policies is that they are designed to carve out exceptions to, circumvent or shift obligations otherwise owed under international law, often through governance measures that could hardly have been foreseen when the 1951 Refugee Convention was drafted. The US interdiction program in the 1990s constitutes a prime example. By geographically shifting migration control to block Haitian refugees on the high seas, it was argued that neither US nor international law applied.

The majority of the Supreme Court in Sale not only upheld the government’s claim, it set off a proliferation of extraterritorial migration control practices. High sea interdiction programmes have since been introduced both in the Mediterranean and the Pacific. Migration control has further become a foreign policy issue, with bilateral and multilateral agreements paving the way for migration control within the territorial waters, airports or border zones of origin or transit states, or the enlisting of third country authorities to perform exit or entry control on behalf of sponsoring states. In parallel, responsibility for migration control has been delegated to corporate actors. From the initial imposition of carrier sanctions spreading through the 1980s, private security companies and other contractors are today increasingly taking on immigration controls both at the border and overseas. These practices all raise complex questions about the reach of international refugee and human rights obligations, attribution of conduct and the division of responsibility for human rights violations. (more…)

YLS Sale Symposium: A Salvage Operation–Refugee Rights Advocacy in the United States after Sale

by Bill Frelick

[Bill Frelick is the director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program. See part one of his post here.]

Since Sale v. Haitian Centers Council judgment in 1993 settled the issue of extraterritorial application of the principle of nonrefoulement in US domestic law, US-based refugee rights advocates after 1993 were left without recourse to US courts. But, writing for the Sale majority, Justice Stevens had said, “The wisdom of the policy choices by Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton is not a matter for our consideration.”

Accordingly, US advocates turned their attention to the policy choices of the executive branch and tried to push the US president to limit US actions, even if he was not required to do so under US law. Secondarily, they targeted the legislative branch, although the US Congress in the mid-90s had taken a restrictionist turn with respect to asylum and immigration. The stark political reality was that there was no prospect of reversing Sale through legislation. Finally, as discussed in a companion essay, US-based advocates worked with UNHCR and international NGO partners to isolate the US interpretation of the nonrefoulement principle in international fora and to limit the damage of the US precedent in other jurisdictions.

This essay will discuss the first two of these three avenues of post-Sale advocacy in which NGOs tried:  (1) to convince the Clinton Administration (and later administrations) as a matter of policy, if not of law, to adhere to international refugee protection principles, and (2) to prevent Congress from taking even more regressive steps and, if possible, to introduce language into legislation that would ameliorate the worst elements of Sale.

Advocacy with the US Executive

First, refugee advocates engaged with the Clinton Administration to convince the president to refrain, as a matter of policy, from availing himself of the Supreme Court’s free pass to refoule maritime asylum seekers. This effort involved direct meetings with Clinton Administration officials, media outreach, and enlisting the support of influential voices. Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch/Americas Watch, the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, Caribbean Rights, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and Physicians for Human Rights, worked to document human rights abuses of Haitians who had been returned by the United States. Advocates also argued with Clinton Administration figures that the US interdiction practice was likely to be very damaging to refugee rights if widely adopted by other states.

To some extent this advocacy succeeded. The Clinton Administration tested a number of alternatives to direct, summary repatriation of Haitians—short of admitting interdicted Haitians to the United States to pursue asylum claims on US soil. Among these was an in-country refugee processing procedure, modeled to some degree on the Orderly Departure Program that was being used at the same time to bring Vietnamese boat departures to an end. Although NGOs were divided on in-country processing from Haiti, and some were involved in the processing, other advocates, this writer included, sharply criticized in-country processing as deeply flawed based, in part, on rights violations Haitians experienced while waiting in the queue, and rejected it as a rationalization for summary returns (see here).

About a year after Sale, on May 8, 1994, President Clinton announced that his administration would not directly repatriate interdicted Haitians without giving them an opportunity to present refugee claims. In July 1994, the Clinton Administration announced that the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO) would be used as a safe haven for Haitians, the same day that the UN Security Council agreed to a resolution calling for all necessary measures to restore democracy to Haiti. Within six months, President Bertrand Aristide had been restored to power and most of the Haitians at GTMO returned voluntarily.  Refugee rights advocates, this writer included, were highly critical of the treatment of Haitians (and Cubans) at GTMO, but for all its faults  it was a vast improvement over having US Coast Guard cutters taking interdicted Haitians directly back to Port-au-Prince.

Policies not grounded in law are subject to change according to political circumstance, however. When Aristide was deposed a second time, in February 2004, the new US president, George W. Bush, announced, “I have made it abundantly clear to the Coast Guard that we will turn back any refugee that attempts to reach our shore,” and US policy had swung back to that of the GHW Bush years, and post-Sale his actions were not amenable to legal challenge.

Advocacy with the US Congress

On the second front, with the US Congress in the mid-1990s, there was considerably less sympathy for Haitian refugees than in the White House. The Congress was in the process of enacting the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA), legislation that introduced a host of draconian restrictions on the ability of asylum seekers to lodge claims in the United States. This left US advocates to pursue rearguard actions on the margins of IIRAIRA that might provide some relief to asylum seekers interdicted on the high seas. Refugee rights advocates could not stop Congress from introducing expedited removal as part of IIRAIRA, but were able to convince legislators to include in the category of aliens who were to be treated as applicants for admission in INA §235, the new statutory provision for expedited removal, people who had been “brought to the United States after having been interdicted in international or United States waters.”

Refugee advocates reasoned that although expedited removal was a step backward in procedural protections for arriving aliens, it at least would provide some procedure, however truncated and accelerated, that would provide a higher measure of protection than was being provided to asylum seekers interdicted at sea and summarily returned to Haiti.

There have been more ambitious legislative initiatives in the 20 years since Sale to try to counter the damage, but none has been enacted into law. The most comprehensive, the Refugee Protection Act (RPA), championed by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), would amend INA §241(b)(3) by including language that specifically addresses protection for aliens interdicted at sea. The RPA would add reference not only to the principle of nonrefoulement in refugee law, but in human rights law as well and would prohibit the return of people interdicted in international or US waters who express a fear of return until they have had the opportunity to be interviewed by an asylum officer to determine whether they have a well-founded fear of persecution or would be subjected to torture. The RPA also outlines procedures applicable for interdicted asylum seekers and indicates how the US should treat those found to be in need of international protection, saying such people should be given the opportunity to seek protection in another country, which could include the United States.

The earliest iteration of the RPA was introduced in the 106th Congress in 1999-2001 at the end of the Clinton administration. Over the years, the RPA has gained widespread NGO support, including from leading refugee and human rights organizations including Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, the ABA, and many faith-based and secular refugee service and advocacy organizations. Introduced again in the 113th Congress, it is now pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Conclusion

Refugee rights advocates in the United States had some success in convincing the Clinton Administration not to refrain from interdicting Haitians on the high seas and summarily repatriating them as a matter of policy, even though the Sale decision authorized it to do so. However, advocates failed to convince the US Congress to change the law to require the executive branch to honor the principle of nonrefoulement where it exercises jurisdiction or control outside US territory. Therefore, the George W. Bush Administration was able to revert to the practice of high seas interdiction and summary return of Haitians to a place where they were likely to face threats to their lives and freedom.

YLS Sale Symposium: Limiting the Damage–Global Refugee Rights Advocacy after Sale

by Bill Frelick

[Bill Frelick is the director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program.]

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) rightfully characterized the US Supreme Court’s Sale v. Haitian Centers Council judgment in 1993 as a “setback to modern international refugee law,” and for the next two decades nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and UNHCR have been trying to limit the damage, pick up the pieces, and salvage what they could after that setback.

Refugee advocates saw immediately that the central idea of the Sale decision, that the principle of nonrefoulement does not apply extra-territorially, would give a giant push to a movement among asylum-destination states that was already well underway at the time of the decision to divert refugee flows, particularly of boat migrants. What made Sale particularly damaging was not only the judgment per se, but the fact that it came from the United States, the erstwhile leader of the modern refugee regime. From Europe to Australia, but no less so among less developed states in Asia and Africa, the US example of interdicting and pushing back Haitian asylum seekers, now blessed by the Supreme Court, looked like a green light for erecting barriers not only to prevent entry, but to operate unbound by the principle of nonrefoulement, cornerstone of international refugee law, on the high seas and in other legally grey areas, such as no-man’s lands between border crossings, where territorial jurisdiction is not always clear.

This essay will look at how NGOs and UNHCR, among others, worked to reiterate in international law fora the principle that the principle of nonrefoulement knows no territorial limits, to dissuade other jurisdictions from adopting the Sale interpretation, and to challenge other states that might try to follow the US lead in interdicting and summarily returning boat migrants. A companion essay looks specifically at NGO advocacy post Sale directed at the executive and legislative branches in the United States.

IACHR: The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) was an early battleground in this effort. A coalition of key Haitian-specific NGOs, including the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami, and the Washington Office on Haiti, joined with the Haitian Centre for Human Rights in Port-au-Prince to petition the IACHR to declare the US interdiction program a serious violation of internationally protected human rights. In 1997 in Haitian Centre for Human Rights et al. v. US, the IACHR found that US interdiction and summary return of Haitians contradicted the US’s nonrefoulement obligations under the Refugee Convention, which know “no geographical limitations” and that the US further breached article 27 of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man by preventing interdicted Haitians from exercising their right to seek and receive asylum in a foreign country.

UNHCR’s Executive Committee: In the years immediately following the Sale decision, another key battleground for refugee advocates was the UNHCR Executive Committee, where the United States had heretofore played a relatively progressive role with respect to articulating refugee rights principles. But in the post-Sale 1990s, the United States began to play a decidedly obstructive role on the interpretation of the nonrefoulment principle. (See here.)

Previously, ExCom conclusions on nonrefoulement going back to 1977 routinely said that the principle of nonrefoulment applies both at the border and within the territory of states. In the ExCom conclusions of 1996 and 1997- ExCom Conclusions 79 and 82–the “at the border” language was dropped.  An early draft of ExCom 79 had reiterated the standard “at the border” language, but the US delegation to the June 1996 standing committee opposed that language, calling it an overstatement of existing international refugee law. UNHCR wrote a letter to the US mission to the UN in Geneva saying that “no other state has adopted as a matter of law the circumscribed view of nonrefoulement advocated by the United States.” US advocates, including this writer, met with and corresponded with US government officials to argue that the position the US was adopting at the ExCom went even further than Sale, which had addressed high seas interdiction, but had not suggested that the principle of refoulement does not apply at the US border. In fact, Justice Stevens had said, “The INA offers these statutory protections [referring to §243(h) of the Immigration and Nationality Act] only to aliens who reside in or who have arrived at a border of the United States.”

A letter signed by 12 executives of NGOs, including the US Committee for Refugees, the International Rescue Committee, the US Catholic Conference, Church World Service, and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society wrote to Anthony Lake, assistant to the President on National Security Affairs, saying: “What standing will the US State Department representatives have next time we plead with West African nations not to push back Liberian boat refugees?… What signal is the US sending to countries like Turkey and Iran who have recently refused entry to Kurdish persons fleeing Saddam Hussein’s secret police?”

The US NGOs were able to convince the State Department to include in its speech to the 1996 ExCom a “political statement” that referred to the principle of nonrefoulement as applying “from the border” of a state, but the State Department only consented to refer to this as a “humanitarian principle,” not a legal one.

With the turn of the millennium and to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, UNHCR convened a series of Global Consultations on International Protection intended to clarify and fill protection gaps in the Convention. UNHCR commissioned scholarly analyses and convened expert roundtables geared toward maritime interdiction and the principle of nonrefoulement, all of which set the stage for ExCom Conclusion 97 of October 2003 on Safeguards in Interception Measures. Although ExCom Conclusion 97 did not explicitly use the term nonrefoulement, it said that:

“interception measures should not result in asylum-seekers and refugees being denied access to international protection, or result in those in need of international protection being returned, directly or indirectly, to the frontiers of territories where their life or freedom would be threatened on account of a Convention ground.”

(more…)

YLS Sale Symposium: The European Union Policy on Refugees and Its Effect on Eritrean Refugees

by Meron Estefanos

[Meron Estefanos is an Eritrean journalist, author and human rights activist.] 

Introduction

The last decade have witnessed an upsurge of Eritrean refugees taking to the Mediterranean Sea in search of a safety from repression and unlimited national service they are facing in their home country. However, in their flight from their home countries, these refuges have encountered several plights such as extortion by Eritrean and Sudanese security, sale to Rashaida human smugglers and traffickers, abduction while traveling or after arriving at a camp or their apartments. Out of desperation and to run away from the mistreatment on the hands of Libyan security, the refugees crowd into decrepit ships by unscrupulous smugglers for a huge amount of money. Consequently, the estimated number of Eritrean refugees drowned while trying to reach European ports has reached in thousands. There is a need to investigate the legal and practical reasons to the question as to why all these increasing numbers of would-be refugees and asylum seekers encountered serious danger at sea.

International Law and Refugees on High Seas

In accordance to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee must not be forcibly returned to a country where his or her life or freedom would be endangered, or to a country where he or she would not be protected against such return. Under the Convention on Search and Rescue also stated that that there is a clear obligation of Seafarers to rescue a ship in distress and deliver the people to a place of safety. However, the Convention has failed to specify whether the nearest suitable port, the next regular port of call, the ship’s home port is considered as a place of safety. Since allowing refugee or asylum seekers who has been rescued at the sea to disembark on one’s territory brings about obligations on the receiving states, in most case states are reluctant to accept such responsibility and they are not under positive obligation to open their doors.

Experts in this area pointed out that the contradiction on the intersection of the law of sea and refugee law thus leaves sea actors in an awkward position. On the one hand, sea actors are obliged by law to rescue people in a distressed ship, while at the same time states are not obliged to accept the refugees rescued at sea. The issue remains unresolved as to who has the responsibility for accepting asylum seekers rescued at sea, processing their claims, and providing a place of safety. Thus, these loopholes under the international law provided countries to enter into different agreement to tighten their borders to protect refugees from entering their ports through the sea.

Italy, in the first place and other European countries after, had signed bilateral agreements with the Libyan authorities to intercept illegal boats and that effect. The 2003 and 2004 agreements had a programme to send back undocumented migrants to their home country. As the result of this agreement, hundreds of Eritreans are deported back to their country where they faced persecution. Most importantly, there was also a crucial agreement was entered on December 2007 between Italy and Libya in which the Italian government had found a loophole to return migrants who have already left the Libyan coast.

The other important agreement worth noting in relation to refugees at sea is the Dublin II Regulation. In relation to people rescued on sea, this regulation places obligation to conduct asylum claims of landing migrants in the hands of Border States of the EU. Thus, Malta feels disadvantaged by the Dublin II Regulation. It pushed that there must be a burden sharing agreement among EU member states concerning the issue asylum seekers. To address this issue of burden sharing, the European Union through its agency FRONTEX also pushed for co-operation agreement with Libya with the aim of patrolling Libyan waters and brings intercepted migrants back to Libya.

As the result of these these skewed agreements and policies which are contrary to EU refugee regimes and the principle of non-refoulment a cornerstone of the international refugee protection, many refugees became victims of many violations of human rights, and death in the sea. Many Eritreans were intercepted by Italian sea patrol and returned back to Libya where they faced imprisonment in harsh conditions for years.  Furthermore, hundreds of Eritreans who took the risk of crossing the sea out of desperation were exposed to a brutal death on the seas due to rough weather.

The Unintended Results of Tighter Control

The agreements entered between EU and Libya to tighten controls at borders and ports-of-entry had an e unintended consequence of on the Eritrean refugee who were trying to cross the sea to enter Europe and those who try to avoid Libya and find another route to other countries. The crimes perpetrated by security forces in Sudan, Libya, and Egypt have increased unprecedented. Abduction for extortion locally reaches an amount of $2000 – $5000. Refugees are also exposed to a forced trip north to be sold to renegade Egyptian Bedouins who torture the refugees mercilessly in order to get them to call relatives and obtain huge ransoms, typically in the $30,000 – $50,000 range per person. In the hands of the hijackers, Eritrean hostages quite often face torture usually involves burning with hot irons, electroshocks, dropping molten plastic on the skin from burning bags and bottles, exposure to the weather, sleep deprivation, continual rape of women, suspension upside down, and lack of food and water. Hostages are released if and when the ransom is paid. For those not paying, some are kept on as slaves, and some are killed and dumped in the desert. In most cases, after families have paid ransom, they get re-sold to other sets of traffickers, creating an almost interminable circle.

Moreover, there is a tendency by the host countries to categorically name all the refuges who are smuggled out to the country as economic migrants though it is know that Eritreans came from a repressive regime which doesn’t respect human rights.  It was also indicated that those who managed to go to Israel from Egypt also face humiliating and inhumane conditions. The government considers them as “work infiltrators” instead of refugees. The victims/survivors are seen as economic migrants and not as people deserving of protection. As a consequence, and particularly under the Anti-Infiltration Law, they are considered undesirable. This conflates asylum processing and security, and undermines refugee protection and assistance.

As long as there is violation of human rights and repression, people will flee their countries to seek a better life and asylum seekers will be found among those who encounter danger on the high seas. Thus, the European Union member states must: first, respect their refugee and human rights laws and their obligation under the international law; second, revise the Dublin II Regulation in a way that shifts the burden on the peripheral countries to all EU members’ states to end the human catastrophe in the high seas and victimization of refugees on the hands of traffickers and smugglers.

YLS Sale Symposium: Spatial Practice as Evidence and Advocacy

by Bradley Samuels

[Bradley Samuels is a Partner at SITU Research. All work described here was undertaken within the scope of Forensic Architecture, a European Research Council funded project based out of Goldsmiths Center for Research Architecture.]

Whether captured by citizen videos, orbiting satellites, or international monitoring agencies, violations of human rights are increasingly documented in visual and spatial registers. Consequently, architectural representations – plans, physical and digital models, geospatial maps and remote sensing – are finding an increasing role as evidence in tribunals and international courts. Today’s forums – be they diplomatic assemblies, fact-finding missions, or human rights reports – are beginning to incorporate spatial analysis as a robust component of humanitarian work. Space necessarily emerges here as a legal construct at the intersection of archive, analysis and artifice – a condition that makes artists and designers uniquely equipped to engage the spatial nuances of cases that previously were the exclusive territory of lawyers, activists and policy makers.  From territorial disputes through acts of genocide, this presentation explores the role of designers within contemporary legal and political forums through the application of its native tools and methodologies in an effort to posit new strategies for documenting, mapping, modeling and visualizing spatial components of international humanitarian law and advocacy.

As part of an investigation into emerging methodologies, a model of synthetic practice is explored here that presents the mining of disparate sources of data into coherent spatial narratives. Strategies are thus explored for combining data types across platforms and sources to leverage a wide range of digital tools to enable workflows between varied softwares – from parametric and geospatial to remote sensing and more.  In addition to the tools themselves, representational and rhetorical frameworks specific to both evidentiary, and advocacy contexts  also are unpacked and assessed in relation to the aforementioned instruments and methodologies.

Case Study: Non-Assistance at Sea
This case study was undertaken in collaboration with Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani.

Among the many migrant vessels that attempted the journey to southern Italy during the 2011 crisis in Libya, one particular case, covered extensively in the international press involved the journey of 72 sub-Saharans fleeing Tripoli by boat on the early morning of March 27, 2011. After traveling about halfway to the Italian island of Lampedusa during their first day at sea the vessel ran out of fuel and subsequently drifted for the following 14 days without food or water until landing back on the Libyan coast. Only 9 of the migrants ultimately survived. In interviews following the event the survivors recounted a series of interactions they had with other actors while at sea. This included a military aircraft that flew over them, a distress call they placed via satellite telephone, two encounters with a military helicopter and an encounter with a military ship. The survivors’ testimonies thus clearly pointed to violations of International Maritime Law which obligates all parties encountering a vessel in distress to render assistance (article 98 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).

In an effort to understand the events that led to this tragedy and to shed light on others like it, a report was undertaken aimed at a spatio-temporal reconstruction of the 15 day period between March 27th 2011 when the vessel left the Port of Tripoli until April 10, 2011 when it washed ashore in Zliten. A comprehensive textual analysis was undertaken in concert with the production of a series of visualizations, diagrams and figures. This work was an exercise in culling of disparate data (geospatial, meteorological, testimonial, military and other) that was ultimately recombined in an effort to assemble a coherent spatial narrative of the chain of events. The diversity of sources and types of data required the report to draw upon the methodologies and expertise of a variety of disciplines, among them remote sensing, cinematography, architecture and oceanography. The result is a synthetic spatial product that leverages increasing technological interoperability and cross disciplinary collaboration to help address what was certainly a humanitarian failure and, ultimately, also a legal question: who was responsible for these deaths? The ultimate destination of this report is a legal case being mounted against France for non-assistance of people in distress at sea. The goal of this work is both to hold accountable those individuals, states and organizations that failed to assist persons clearly in distress as well as to draw greater attention to the systemic and long standing issue of migrant deaths at sea in the Mediterranean.

Ukraine Insta-Symposium: Of Secession & Less-Drastic Means–Do the Åland Islands Hold Any Lessons for the Crimea Crisis?

by Rhodri Williams

[Rhodri C. Williams is a US human rights lawyer living in Sweden and working for the International Legal Assistance Consortium. He writes on human rights issues on his own blog, TerraNullius.]

In the crisis triggered by Russia’s poorly concealed incursion in Crimea, there are plenty of grounds to believe that Moscow’s international law arguments are largely a smokescreen, albeit one arguably enabled the West’s own blurring of legal lines in the course of two decades of liberal interventionism. Lying behind Russia’s normative protestations, however, are concrete assertions of political interest that will have to be addressed in order to achieve a sustainable resolution. In this sense, an emerging normative challenge relates to the extent to which international law and practice on self-determination would facilitate such a process.

Russia’s has a number of arguable political interests in the Crimean peninsula. The most obvious relate to security, and Crimea’s role as a warm water port of longstanding strategic significance to the Russian Navy. However, a far broader claim relates to Russia’s asserted right to protect both its citizens and Russian speaking minorities throughout a “near abroad” corresponding to the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. Like any country, Russia has a legitimate interest in the fate of its citizens and an arguable interest in supporting kin minorities. However, the unilateral and open-ended imposition of Russia’s own “protection” in a neighboring state is taken by many in the region as a thinly veiled excuse for a new round of post-Soviet revanchism. Indeed, comparisons have inevitably been drawn to “Hitler’s substitution of ethnicity for state borders” in the lead-up to World War II.

The issues raised by Russia’s “ethnic” claims in Crimea, eastern Ukraine and beyond play on debates about the alignment of states and nations that have been with us since the 19th century, but which gained an explosive new life since the end of the Cold War. Ironically, the original political emergence of these issues arguably came with the Crimean War of the 1850s, in which France and Britain sought to prevent Russia from encroaching on Ottoman Turkish-held territories in the Balkans. However, while both Ukraine and the Balkans have subsequently provided spectacular examples of the failure to peacefully manage diversity, the Åland Islands of Finland – the little known northernmost theatre of the Crimean War – give some grounds for hope.

The “Åland example”, as described in a recent book by the Åland Islands Peace Institute, has significant resonance for Crimea. Perhaps most obviously, Åland, like Crimea, occupies a strategic location in a region long troubled by ethno-linguistic cleavages. Åland is an archipelago in Finland that projects toward Sweden across a narrow strait in the Baltic Sea. Like the rest of Finland, Åland was part of Sweden until 1809, when the country was incorporated into Russia. Eager to consolidate an outpost within striking distance of Stockholm, the Russians built a fortress at Bomarsund on Åland.

Thus, the issue of strategic location arose early, with the British and French war aims focused on destroying both Bomarsund and Sevastapol in Crimea, and preventing them from being militarized again. Since the Crimean War, Åland – in contrast to Sevastapol – has remained demilitarized, in a local regime rooted in the 1856 peace settlement. The “ethnic issue” on Åland remained dormant for another 60 years until 1917, when Finland became independent. Until then, the tiny Åland population had aligned itself with the minority of mainland Finns (at the time about 10%) that spoke Swedish as their mother tongue, but that would quickly change.

In 1918, the first Finnish Constitution granted the Swedish language formal equality with Finnish, paving the way for an enduring cultural autonomy that has guaranteed linguistic and cultural rights for Swedish-speakers without granting them either political veto powers or control over their territories. Meanwhile, the Ålanders had already begun to agitate for secession to Sweden and succeeded in bringing their case to the newly founded League of Nations. The result was a 1921 compromise solution in which sovereignty was retained by Finland, but on the condition that Åland was to be granted an extensive territorial autonomy, or local self-rule. In order to assuage Sweden’s security concerns, Crimean War-era demilitarization was affirmed and expanded.

As described in the Peace Institute’s book, all this led to a surprisingly durable regime, sanctified by international law obligations (compiled here), but fundamentally anchored in consent. The authors attribute the longevity of Åland’s arrangements to a number of factors. A key departure point was the astute balance of dissatisfaction set by the original League of Nations decision. Finland was granted sovereignty without control, Åland self-rule without self-determination, and Sweden security guarantees without territorial gains. This may have contributed to a dynamic whereby all parties acted on “the basic premise of accepting a compromise and learning to live with it” (196). (more…)

Ukraine Insta-Symposium: Crisis in Ukraine–A Transitional Justice Perspective

by Ilya Nuzov

[Ilya Nuzov is an Assistant Researcher with the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights and a PhD student in International Law at the University of Geneva. His main research area concerns transitional justice in Eastern Europe.]  

Much has been said in recent discussions on the Ukraine crisis in an attempt to qualify the ongoing Russian intervention as one kind of violation of international law or another and to ascertain possible legal and political repercussions for either state. (See previous posts in this symposium by Robert McCorquodale, Greg Fox, Remy Jorritsma). This post seeks to bring to the foray what it considers a fundamental issue driving the rift between the two brotherly nations and standing in the way of their reconciliation and democratization. Namely, the failure of either Russia or Ukraine to meaningfully work through the Soviet past internally, as well as with respect to each other, through the institution of any of the transitional justice measures previously employed and recommended by the international community. See a description of these by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights here.

The importance of coming to terms with the past in the post-communist space cannot be overstated. Nations that have transitioned most successfully from authoritarian communist regimes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, including East Germany, are ones that have implemented robust judicial and non-judicial mechanisms designed to methodically work through the past in order to heal societies and rebuild institutions modeled on democratic principles and the rule of law. Upon its reunification, Germany, which has achieved remarkable economic success while ushering in democracy and restoring trust in public institutions, has employed prosecutions, vetting procedures and a commission of inquiry in order to rid its institutions of the authoritarian legacy, restore societal trust and reconcile Germans who collaborated with the communist regime with those who were persecuted by the infamous Stasi.

The same cannot be said with respect to either Ukraine or Russia. Leaving aside the monumental work of NGOs like Moscow-based Memorial, both countries rank near the bottom of the spectrum of post-communist states in terms of official government efforts to work through the past after the fall of the Soviet Union. In Russia, the most noteworthy reforms were instituted in the early 1990’s and addressed primarily rehabilitations of victims of Soviet-era repressions. In 1991, Yeltsin approved Federal Law of the Russian Federation On the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Political Repressions, No. 1761-1 rehabilitating all victims of political repressions after 1917 and offering, albeit miniscule, financial reparations.

No one has ever been held accountable for human rights abuses in Russia. What has been optimistically called the ‘trial of the CPSU’ was nothing more than a constitutional law challenge by some communists in December 1991 of Yeltsin’s decree that suspended and later banned the Communist Party and its Russian Federation branch. Although the proceedings did manage to unearth thousands of pages of secret archives detailing past atrocities, at the end of the day the trial was condemned as a bureaucratic farce that failed to acknowledge the collective trauma of the past. Today, the archives are under the de facto control of the KGB’s successor, the Federal Security Service, which restricts access even to documents dating back to the 1920s. To further complicate matters, many of Ukraine’s Soviet-era secret police archives have been moved to Moscow and the remaining files, maintained by the Ukrainian Archives Committee, are effectively closed to the public. Compare this with the experience of Germany, which has allowed individual access to Stasi archives under the Stasi Records Act and over five million applications from individual victims of the totalitarian regime have been received since 1992 to view them. (more…)

YLS Sale Symposium: ‘Stopping the Boats’–Australia’s Appalling Example to the World

by Paul Power

[Paul Power is Chief Executive Officer of the Refugee Council of Australia and a member of the Steering Committee of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network.]

In January 2014, a ranger in West Java reported to the Indonesian navy that a mysterious orange vessel had landed on a remote coral reef and about 60 people had disembarked and disappeared. The naval official who investigated first feared that the vessel may hold explosives but instead discovered that the main contents of this fully-enclosed and unsinkable lifeboat were discarded water bottles and food wrappings sourced from Malaysia. The Indonesian authorities worked out that the people who had arrived on the lifeboat were asylum seekers who had been forced on to it by Australian naval and customs officers after the boat they were on began to sink while being intercepted close to Christmas Island.

This incident was reported in the Australian media on February 1 and, in the weeks following, the Australian public learned that their government had purchased 12 of these lifeboats at a total cost of A$2.5 million (US$2.25 million). Since then, another two lifeboats have ended up in Indonesia and at least four seaworthy asylum seeker boats have been returned to Indonesia. The Australian Government is revealing little – refusing to answer many media questions about “operational matters” – but is proudly proclaiming that there have been no successful people smuggling ventures to Australia since 17 December 2013.

Tony Abbott’s conservative Liberal-National Coalition was elected in September 2013 promising to “stop the boats” of asylum seekers (people the Coalition refers to as “illegal maritime arrivals”) entering Australian waters from South and South-East Asia. For five years in opposition, the Coalition had campaigned ceaselessly against the Labor Government’s changes to policies John Howard’s Coalition Government (1996-2007) had introduced to stop asylum seekers on boats. Labor’s decision to end Temporary Protection Visas for asylum seekers who arrived by boat and to close the detention centre on Nauru which was central to the “Pacific Solution” had resulted, the Coalition argued, in 50,000 asylum seekers in five years entering Australia by sea without permission.

Following failed attempts to send asylum seekers to East Timor and Malaysia, in 2012 the Labor Government responded to political pressure from the Coalition and reintroduced the Pacific Solution detention arrangements in Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG). Not only did this fail to be the “circuit breaker” Labor wanted, asylum seeker arrivals increased to record levels (25,173 In the year to 30 June 2013), exceeding the capacity of the detention centres in Nauru, PNG and Australia. Processing of asylum claims was slowed considerably, hundreds of Sri Lankan boat arrivals were returned without a refugee status determination process and work rights were removed for asylum seekers released from detention from November 2012 while Labor searched for an even more punitive approach. On 19 July 2013, Labor’s newly reinstalled Prime Minister Kevin Rudd signed a “Regional Resettlement Arrangement” with PNG which would see all future boat arrivals sent there never to be allowed entry to Australia. In August, a similar arrangement was signed with Nauru.

The Coalition argued that these measures were not tough enough to secure Australia’s borders, promising a military style operation, headed by a three-star general, which would include turning back boats when safe to do so. Boat arrivals already in Australia would lose access to government-funded legal aid, be offered only temporary protection if found to be refugees and have no future access to family reunion.

Operation Sovereign Borders commenced when the Coalition Government was sworn in with most of its work hidden from public view. It allocated A$67 million to increased efforts to disrupt people smuggling activities with funds going to authorities in Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Media reports suggest that, in the first two months, these activities prevented 1151 asylum seekers from travelling to Australia. In October and early November, Australia turned back two boats with the involvement of Indonesia but a third boat turnback was aborted when word leaked out about it and Indonesia withdrew.

In mid November, the Indonesia-Australia relationship fell apart when material published by Edward Snowden revealed that in 2009 Australia had been listening in to the mobile phone conversations of the Indonesian President and his wife. Indonesia was deeply unhappy with Australia’s response to these revelations and declared that it would no longer cooperate with Australia on people smuggling matters.

Australia has clearly gone it alone since then and appears to have forced back seven boats since mid December, including boats which appear to have reached Australian territory. In mid January, the Australian Government admitted that its navy and customs boats had inadvertently entered Indonesian territorial waters on six occasions and apologised to Indonesia. It appears that these breaches occurred while boats of asylum seekers were being forced back.

Australia’s response to asylum seekers travelling directly from Sri Lanka is even more troubling, given that Australia is working actively with the government from which people are fleeing. UNHCR described Australia’s policy of excluding many Sri Lankans from access to the refugee determination process after a cursory initial interview and then returning them as “unfair and unreliable”. We at the Refugee Council of Australia have raised concerns about the possibility that Tamil asylum seekers have been refouled and expressed opposition to Australia’s decision to donate patrol boats to Sri Lanka and ignore the country’s human rights record.

While Australia’s interception activities breach standards in international law, domestic legal remedies are limited. Australia does not have a bill of rights in its constitution or in national legislation and rights under international law do not automatically become incorporated into Australian law. In 2001, the Federal Court confirmed the Australian Government’s power to exclude and expel non-citizens and to detain them for that purpose. In 2011, the High Court ruled that the Australian Government could not proceed with its plan to send asylum seekers to Malaysia because Section 198A of the Migration Act required it to ensure that adequate legal protections were in place. While the arrangement with Malaysia did not proceed, Section 198A was amended in 2012.

In a political environment in which both major political parties share similar views about the expulsion of boat arrivals, political advocacy is very difficult. However, a significant minority of Australians are becoming more and more vocal in their opposition to policies which they see causing harm to people seeking asylum. The greatest threat to the Government’s policies is likely to come from longer term public reaction to their unsustainability – the chaos which develops as a result of widespread long-term detention; the impracticality of refugees being settled sustainably in PNG, Nauru or even Cambodia (last week’s new thought bubble); and the damage caused diplomatically by Australia’s outrageous behaviour. As I endlessly repeat, the current issues facing Australia will not disappear until governments in Asia-Pacific begin to realise that collectively they have much more to gain by working together on a regional approach to refugee protection than by trying unilaterally to turn their backs on those in need.