ADELAIDE, Australia >> Australia has revamped its refugee application process to provide faster assessments for asylum seekers who arrive by boat, the immigration minister said Friday.
The move follows a High Court decision last year that granted unsuccessful refugee applicants the right to appeal in Australian courts.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the changes will ensure that decisions are fairer and faster, as well as minimizing the chance for judicial appeals.
“I am very keen to ensure that decision-making on protection claims is both swift and robust,” Bowen told reporters in Canberra. “Following the recent High Court ruling, my department has amended its processes in order to correct and, in future, avoid any possible procedural unfairness.”
Asylum seekers currently in detention can wait up to a year or more for their refugee application to be assessed. If they are rejected by the government, offshore applicants previously had no right to appeal, unlike refugee hopefuls who applied from the Australian mainland.
Under the new procedure, beginning March 1, asylum seekers arriving at an offshore processing center will immediately be assessed by an immigration official as to whether they fit the U.N. refugee criteria. If a decision cannot be reached, they will be given a chance to respond to any information about them that may negatively affect their claim, and their case will be turned over to an independent assessor.
“It is important that the government balances the need for a rigorous assessment process with the need for timely and efficient processing of asylum claims,” Bowen said. “It is also important for the integrity of the system that people whose claims are rejected do not unduly delay their return to their country of origin through repeated and unmeritorious appeals.”
November’s landmark High Court ruling supported two Sri Lankan men who have been detained since October 2009 on Christmas Island after illegally entering Australian waters. They claimed to be refugees fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka due to their support for Tamil Tiger rebels.
But their applications for refugee visas were denied, and they faced deportation before they appealed to the High Court.
The court ruled that it was an error of law to deny asylum seekers not on the Australian mainland the right to apply for refugee status, and opened the door for at least 1,000 rejected applicants to appeal.
Australia has long been a destination for people from poor, often war-ravaged countries hoping to start a new life, and more than 6,200 people arrived by boat in Australian waters last year. Most asylum seekers in recent years have come from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. They typically fly to Indonesia before continuing to Australia in cramped, barely seaworthy boats.
The increasing numbers of boat arrivals has kicked off an ongoing political debate, with the opposition demanding stricter laws to deter would-be illegal migrants.
Tony Abbott, leader of the opposition, called the government’s decision “more hand-wringing” because it had lost control of Australia’s borders.
“There is really only one way to address this, and that is to stop the boats, and nothing in today’s announcement by the government will actually stop the boats,” Abbott said. “As long as the boats keep coming, we will have these problems.”