As the search for MH370 continues to be led by Australia and Prime Minister Tony Abbott, another problem is in full swing for the Land Down Under and is not getting the attention it deserves. The issue of asylum seekers coming to Australia has been a contentious topic for Australian politics, especially since the new Coalition government under Abbott took power, but it is not about to get better any time soon. Recent events regarding asylum seekers prove once again that they have a hard road to hoe in Australia and it is not getting any easier.
On Monday it was quietly announced that legal aid was going to be cut by the government. Until now, such persons, most of whom are poor, illiterate, and speak very little English, have been unable to afford their own legal representation and were helped in their journey to receive asylum by tax-payer funded legal aid. But the Abbott government, after harping about the budget deficit and as yet offering no real solution, have decided to discontinue this important service in the name of saving 100 million dollars over the next four years.
The decision will no doubt save the government money, but it makes hardly a dent in the one billion dollars it takes to process refugees and asylum seekers, and it violates certain human rights guidelines which ensure that those who are detained should have access to free legal assistance. While the Australian government maintains that detainees will still have access to legal counsel provided by non-governmental programs, the withdrawing of government support places a great strain on all parties involved, which is not in the spirit of the guidelines.
Many pro bono aid providers, including Pro Bono Australia, are saying that the decision not only undermines refugees and asylum seekers’ rights, but that it unfairly punished vulnerable people. Pro Bono Australia and other such organizations are anticipating a higher demand for their services, which calls into question whether they have the resources to cope with that demand. Both asylum seekers and those people trying to get them access to Australia have a hard road ahead of them as the government puts more obstacles in their path.
Nevertheless, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison did say that asylum seekers would continue to be given instructions on how the system works, though he did not specify exactly what that entails. The possibility of them understanding everything they need to know about the process is slim to none, especially since many of these people have limited English language skills or any form of education. The claim that the government’s decision unfairly disadvantages them stands when the human element is actually taken in to account.
The announcement is especially serious with the upcoming hearing of a challenge to the processing of asylum seekers on Manus Island, one of the primary detention facilities for refugees being held by the Australian government. The plaintiff in the case is claiming that the decision to send him to detention was unlawful. The case could set a precedent for other such challenges and possibly improve conditions for others waiting in detention centers. Without access to legal aid, such cases cannot move forward.
Whether the decision to discontinue legal aid is directly related to cases like this cannot be said, but it is certain that it will affect all such cases in the future. Morrison’s comments were that the decision about whether people were legitimate refugees and asylum seekers was determined by the process already in place. He followed that up by saying that the Australian government would not aid people in that process by providing legal aid. Basically, it looks like the Australian government is doing everything it can to ensure that asylum seekers do not receive asylum at all, including violating human rights to do so.
The initiative taken by the Abbott government to stop refugees coming by boat known as Operation Sovereign Borders is already of questionable legality. The Abbott government has been warned by the United Nations that it might violate international law. But the operation has gone ahead anyway and now, with the decision to discontinue legal aid, there are more questions about whether Australia is violating human rights. Until those questions are answered, asylum seekers and refugees will continue to have to walk a hard road in order to be granted protection by Australia and the current government is not going to make it any easier.
Opinion By Lydia Webb