Plunging approval rates for asylum claims rely on flawed information.
By William Maley published on Australian newspaper The Age
AT A ceremony on Monday, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen and Afghan Minister for Refugees and Repatriation Jamahir Anwary signed a memorandum of understanding providing for the involuntary return to Afghanistan of Afghan asylum seekers ”judged not to be in need of international protection”.
There was a certain irony in Anwary’s participation, since in August 2010 his own son had been kidnapped at gunpoint in Kabul – hardly a compelling sign of a secure environment even in the Afghan capital.
More seriously, the memorandum offered very little to guarantee the integrity of the process by which it would be judged whether an asylum applicant needed protection or not.
According to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s annual report for 2009-10, there were 1514 visas granted at the so-called ”primary” stage (that is, on the basis of the department’s own assessment), and this represented a primary grant rate of 99.2 per cent. When appeals were taken into account, the final grant rate for Afghans came to 99.7 per cent.
Given the lamentable security environment in much of Afghanistan, and the substantial inability of the Afghan government to protect ordinary people (especially members of the Hazara minority) from persecution by groups such as the Taliban, there was nothing surprising about these statistics.
However, something changed last year. On April 9, a joint statement was issued by the Australian ministers for immigration and citizenship, foreign affairs and home affairs, announcing ”a suspension of the processing of new asylum applications” from Afghanistan. The basis for this was the remarkable claim that the ”Taliban’s fall, durable security in parts of the country, and constitutional and legal reform to protect minorities’ rights have improved the circumstances of Afghanistan’s minorities, including Afghan Hazaras”.
To those with recent field experience in Afghanistan, this was little short of bizarre: the state is so feeble that ”constitutional and legal reform to protect minorities’ rights” means nothing for ordinary people. This became all too clear in late June 2010. Reuters newsagency reported that the bodies of 11 men, their heads cut off and placed next to them, had been found in Oruzgan, the very province in which most Australian troops were deployed. A local police official commented that it was the work of the Taliban: ”They beheaded these men because they were ethnic Hazaras and Shiite Muslims”.
One would have thought that the implication of an atrocity of this sort was rather stark, and the resumption of processing of Afghan cases, announced on September 30 last year, would have seen a return to approval rates similar to those that previously prevailed.
However, on Tuesday this week Bowen gave a radio interview in which he claimed that ”some time ago, say 12 months ago, you would find approval rates of about 100 per cent. So you would find that if you came from Afghanistan and you were a Hazara, you came to Australia, you had about a 99 per cent chance of being approved because that was the information the reviewers had at that stage about the state of the Hazara people in Afghanistan … We’ve found more recently, with better information, that those approval rates have fallen … And now from Afghanistan you get primary approval rates of, you know, about 50 per cent, so 50 per cent get accepted as refugees and 50 per cent get rejected at that primary level.”
The key question is what is this allegedly ”better information” that now guides the assessment of Afghan applications? It could hardly be the considered opinion of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, for its assessment is that the ”security situation throughout Afghanistan, particularly in the south of the country, remains extremely dangerous”.
The US State Department, likewise, states that ”no part of Afghanistan should be considered immune from violence” and that the ”security environment remains volatile and unpredictable”.
In the light of these assessments, there is every reason to be sceptical of the claim that approval rates have fallen because decision makers have ”better information”.
What decision makers do have, as a result of the joint statement last April , is a much clearer idea of what their political masters want. This is the problem that lurks beneath the new memorandum. If one could be genuinely confident that no refugee would be sent back to Afghanistan, then it would be largely unproblematic. But when approval rates for asylum claims suddenly plunge when the circumstances in the applicants’ country of origin are by most accounts deteriorating, there are grounds for believing that there is something very wrong with the assessment process.
And when this happens, the human consequences for vulnerable people can be atrocious. This is something for policymakers and decision makers to remember: if they approach these issues recklessly, they will likely end up with blood on their hands.
Professor William Maley is director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University. He is a regular visitor to Afghanistan, most recently in September 2010.