Submission to Senate Inquiry into Treatment of Asylum Seekers on Nauru & Manus Island

UPDATE: 5 June 2016

 

The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, chaired by Senator Glenn Lazarus, was unable to complete its inquiry into the treatment of people seeking asylum on Nauru and Manus Island before Malcolm Turnbull announced the election on 8 May.

 

However, they did release an Interim Report based on the submissions it had already received, which can be found here.

 

A range of disturbing matters are raised in this Report, including submissions to the effect that, in just a 13-month period (June 2014 to July 2015), the Department of Immigration and Border Protection recorded:

 

  • “134 incidents of actual self-harm, many amounting to attempted suicide and including some by children
  • 75 instances of the use of force against asylum seekers, by other asylum seekers and by [Regional Processing Centre] staff
  • 26 ‘major disturbances’ of various kinds, all serious in nature and posing risks to the safety of asylum seekers and staff
  • 34 instances of serious assault requiring medical treatment [and]
  • 16 serious accidents of injuries and 23 public health risks.”

 

I encourage you to read the short report to see at least a little of what is being done by our Government to people who deserve its protection, not abuse.

 

The Committee also recognised the particular issues confronting LGBTI people seeking asylum being detained, processed and resettled in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, including the following extended section on pages 12 and 13:

 

LGBTI asylum seekers

 

1.57 The committee received some evidence focused on the situation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people held in the [Regional Processing Centres]. Mr Alastair Lawrie noted that male homosexual conduct remained a criminal offence in both Nauru and PNG, and expressed the view that ‘the Australian Government inflicts serious harm on LGBTI people seeking asylum by detaining, processing and resettling them in countries that continue to criminalise homosexuality.’ Mr Lawrie cited reports of abuse, assault and marginalisation of homosexual asylum seekers in the [Regional Processing Centres], and the lack of appropriate health and community services in the two countries. [Australian Lawyers for Human Rights] shared these concerns, citing Amnesty International’s reporting about gay refugees and resettlement in PNG.

 

1.58 The NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby highlighted that ‘LGBTI refugees are some of the most vulnerable individuals held in detention around the world’, and submitted that they were subject to ‘severe discrimination’ in the [Regional Processing Centres] and their host countries, as well as in refugee status determination processes.

 

1.59 Mr Lawrie argued that LGBTI asylum seekers (whether or not their claims for refugee status were based on their sexuality) should be housed and processed in Australia. The NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby agreed, and also offered a number of recommendations for specific training and education of relevant officials and service providers, as well as improved services, to better address the specific needs and vulnerabilities of LGBTI asylum-seekers.”

 

Given their inability to complete the inquiry, the Committee made only one recommendation: “The committee recommends that, should it be unable to complete its inquiry prior to the 2016 national election, the Senate should refer this matter for committee consideration, in similar terms as appropriate, in the 45th Parliament.”

 

However, even that recommendation, to essentially resume the Inquiry after the July 2 poll, was a bridge too far for Liberal and National Party Senators on the Committee who, disappointingly, “instead recommended[ed] that examination of Australia’s border protection activities be referred to the more reliable and cost-effective forum of Senate Estimates.”

 

As a result, it is unclear whether this issue will receive sufficient parliamentary scrutiny in the next term.

 

There is, nevertheless, one positive development that has occurred since the Committee handed down its Interim Report – on 27 May the Government of Nauru announced that it had decriminalised homosexuality.

 

In its media release “Nauru Government updates Criminal Code”, they announced passage of “the Crimes Act 2016 [which] replaces the hundred year old Nauruan Criminal Code 1899 which was drawn from the Queensland Criminal Code.”

 

In doing so, they confirmed the influence of international human rights advocacy:

 

“The Government of Nauru continues to show progressive leadership and in keeping with its legislative agenda, has passed a new number of laws including the decriminalising of homosexuality and suicide.

 

“In complying with its international obligations under various international treaties, The Nauru Parliament has had laws drafted to be consistent with appropriate international standards.”

 

Of course, the passage of this law, while welcome, will not necessarily do much to prevent ongoing reports of abuse as highlighted in the Committee’s Interim Report, but it is at least a small step forward, not just for LGBTI people seeking asylum being detained on Nauru, but for the LGBTI people of Nauru too.

 

ORIGINAL POST:

 

The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee is currently conducting an Inquiry into the Conditions and Treatment of Asylum Seekers and Refugees at the Regional Processing Centres in the Republic of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. My submission to this inquiry has now been published by the Committee and is reproduced below.

More details about the Inquiry, and other submissions, can be found here.

 

Committee Secretary

Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee

PO Box 6100

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

legcon.sen@aph.gov.au

Thursday 31 March 2016

 

To whom it may concern

 

Submission to Senate Inquiry into Conditions and Treatment of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Nauru and PNG

 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee Inquiry into Conditions and Treatment of Asylum Seekers and Refugees at the Regional Processing Centres in the Republic of Nauru and Papua New Guinea (‘the Inquiry’).

 

From the outset, I wish to express my opposition to the policies adopted by both the current Liberal-National Government, and the previous Labor Government, which detain (sometimes indefinitely), process and in some cases resettle people seeking asylum in Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG).

 

I believe that the actions of successive Australian Governments are in breach not just of international human rights law, but also fall far short of basic standards of human decency, denying the opportunity of a better life to people fleeing persecution in other countries.

 

However, while I oppose the overall detention, processing and resettlement of all people seeking asylum in Nauru and PNG, in this submission I will focus on one group of people for whom these policies cause particular problems: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.

 

It is my view that the Australian Government inflicts serious harm on LGBTI people seeking asylum by detaining, processing and resettling them in countries that continue to criminalise homosexuality.

 

Before I address this issue in more detail, I would like to clarify that here I am not simply referring to people who claim asylum based on persecution because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status in other countries, but also include people who seek asylum on the basis of persecution of another attribute (such as race, religion or political views) and who are LGBTI. Both groups are negatively affected by the Australian Government’s current approach.

 

In this submission, examining the treatment of LGBTI people seeking asylum, I will primarily focus on two of the Inquiry’s six criteria:

a) conditions and treatment of asylum seekers and refugees at the regional processing centres in the Republic of Nauru and Papua New Guinea;

d) the extent to which the Australian-funded regional processing centres in the Republic of Nauru and Papua New Guinea are operating in compliance with Australian and international legal obligations.

 

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Sending LGBTI people seeking asylum to countries that criminalise homosexuality is itself a human rights abuse, and one that exposes those people to other forms of abuse and mistreatment

 

The Australian Government currently detains people seeking asylum in two countries outside of Australia: Nauru and PNG.

 

In both countries, male homosexuality remains criminalised. In both places, the maximum penalty is set at 14 years imprisonment. And in both, the origins of their current laws can be traced back to British, and subsequently Australian, imperial rule.

 

Nauru has two main criminal offences under its Criminal Code (which, I understand, are based on Queensland’s 1899 Criminal Code) that are relevant to this discussion:

 

“Section 208 Unnatural Offences

Any person who:

(1) Has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature; or

(2) Has carnal knowledge of an animal; or

(3) Permits a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature;

is guilty of a crime, and is liable to imprisonment with hard labour for fourteen years[i]” and

 

“Section 211 Indecent Practices between Males

Any male person who, whether in public or private, commits any act of gross indecency with another male person, or procures another male person to commit any act of gross indecency with him, or attempts to procure the commission of any such act by any male person with himself or with another male person, whether in public or private, is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment with hard labour for three years.”

 

Despite comments in recent years by the Government of Nauru that suggested homosexuality could be decriminalise there, these offences remain in place today.

 

Papua New Guinea also has two main offences under its Criminal Code that are relevant (and the offences, and even the language used, again appear to be based on Queensland’s since repealed criminal provisions):

 

“Section 210. Unnatural Offences.

(1) A person who-

(a) sexually penetrates any person against the order of nature; or

(b) sexually penetrates an animal; or

(c) permits a male person to sexually penetrate him or her against the order of nature,

is guilty of a crime.

Penalty: Imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years.

(2) A person who attempts to commit and offences against Subsection (1) is guilty of a crime.

Penalty: imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years” and

 

“Section 212. Indecent Practices Between Males.

(1) A male person who, whether in public or private-

(a) commits an act of gross indecency with another male person; or

(b) procures another male person to commit an act of gross indecency with him; or

(c) attempts to procure the commission of any such act by a male person with himself or with another male person,

is guilty of a misdemeanour.

Penalty: Imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years.”

 

Unlike Nauru, there does not even appear to be any prospect of the PNG offences being repealed in the short or medium-term future.

 

Thus, prime facie, it appears that any members of the LGBTI community who engage in what could be described as male-male sexual activity – which would include gay men, bisexual men, some trans people (including because of mis-gendering by authorities) and some intersex people – would be committing criminal offences if they are sent to Nauru or PNG.

 

The criminalisation of male homosexuality in both PNG and Nauru stands in stark contrast with the situation in Australia, where all states and territories have decriminalised sexual activity between men (with Tasmania the last state to do so, in 1997).

 

If LGBTI people seeking asylum were instead allowed to have their claims processed on Australian soil, they would not need to fear being prosecuted simply because of who they are.

 

The legal situation in Australia is also relevant in establishing that the criminalisation of homosexual sexual activity in both Nauru and PNG is a contravention of international human rights law. It does so in two ways:

 

(i) The first United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) decision to find that laws criminalising male homosexuality were a violation of the ‘right to privacy’ in article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)[ii] involved an Australian complainant. The case of Toonen v Australia[iii] – which considered a complaint against the ‘sodomy’ laws of Tasmania – was ground-breaking when it was handed down in early 1994, and remains relevant around the world today[iv] (as we shall see below).

 

(ii) The Australian Government, and Parliament, then confirmed that the international human right to privacy included consensual sexual activity between adults through the passage of the Human Rights (Sexual Conduct) Act 1994. Specifically, subsection 4(1) provided that: “[s]exual conduct involving only consenting adults acting in private is not to be subject, by or under any law of the Commonwealth, a State or a Territory, to any arbitrary interference with privacy within the meaning of Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

 

And yet, despite a 1994 decision of the UNHRC finding that the international human right to privacy should include the right to consensual sexual activity between adults, and despite this being confirmed as a right by the Australian Parliament more than 20 years ago, successive Australian Governments have effectively determined that this right should not apply to LGBTI people seeking asylum who seek protection from Australia.

 

Instead, successive Australian Governments have detained, processed and, in some case, resettled LGBTI people seeking asylum in countries that continue to criminalise male homosexual activity, exposing them to what I would argue are human rights violations under both Australian and international law.

 

There has previously been a suggestion that the criminal laws of Nauru and PNG, and especially those laws that prohibit homosexual sexual activity, might not apply to people seeking asylum who are being detained in either or both of those places.

 

However, I have raised this issue directly with respective Immigration Ministers under both the previous Labor and current Liberal-National Governments, and neither has explicitly ruled out the application of these criminal laws.

 

In September 2012, I asked then Immigration Minister the Hon Chris Bowen MP:

 

“Are you aware that homosexuality is currently illegal in all three countries [at the time, they also sought to send people seeking asylum to Malaysia] to which the Australian Government currently intends to send asylum seekers?” and

“Will the laws of these jurisdictions apply to asylum seekers being detained by the Australian Government?”[v]

 

The response from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, received in June 2013 (see Appendix A), refused to answer these questions – and therefore refused the opportunity to deny that the offences would indeed apply.

 

I wrote to the new Minister for Immigration the Hon Scott Morrison MP in February 2014, raising the same issues, this time specifically in relation to Manus Island, following the release of the Amnesty International Report This is Breaking People.[vi] In this letter, I included the following statement, something that I continue to firmly believe today:

 

“If you, as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and therefore Minister responsible for the welfare of asylum seekers and refugees, cannot guarantee that section 210 and 212 of the PNG Penal Code do not apply to detainees on Manus Island, then you cannot send LGBTI people there in good conscience.”[vii]

 

The response to that letter, again from the Department rather than the Minister, and received in February 2014 (see Appendix B), did nothing to allay concerns that the criminal laws applied to LGBTI people seeking asylum held on Manus Island:

 

“The enforcement of PNG domestic law is a matter for the Government of PNG. The government is aware of laws relating to homosexual activity in PNG and understands that there have been no recent reports of prosecutions under those laws.

 

“If homosexual activity should occur in the OPC [Offshore Processing Centre], there is no mandatory obligation under PNG domestic law for Australian officers or contracted services providers to report such activity to the PNG Government or police.”

 

There is a lot to absorb from those short paragraphs and indeed from the letter as a whole (and I will attempt to address these issues in turn).

 

However, one thing that does not appear anywhere in this correspondence is a denial that the criminal laws of PNG apply to LGBTI people seeking asylum and refugees on Manus Island, irrespective of whether they are awaiting assessment or have had their applications approved and are living in the community.

 

Thus, on the basis of both letters, it can safely be asserted that the laws that criminalise homosexuality in PNG, and Nauru, apply to LGBTI people seeking asylum detained in both places by the Australian Government.

 

Looking at the specific claims in the February 2014 letter in more detail, we must remember that it does not actually matter whether the criminal laws of either PNG or Nauru have been the subject of prosecution in recent years. As the United Nations Human Rights Committee decided in the 1994 Toonen case:

 

“The Committee considers that Sections 122(a), (c) and 123 of the Tasmanian Criminal Code “interfere” with the author’s privacy, even if those provisions have not been enforced for a decade. In this context, it notes that the policy of the Department of Public Prosecutions not to initiate criminal proceedings in respect of private homosexual conduct does not amount to a guarantee that no actions will be brought against homosexuals in the future… The continued existence of the challenged provisions therefore continuously and directly “interferes” with the author’s privacy.”

 

In this light, the continued existence of the laws of Nauru and PNG criminalising male homosexuality is sufficient to constitute a human rights abuse of any person who is included by their scope, irrespective of whether the laws are actively being enforced or not.

 

The February 2014 letter actually highlights this potential abuse, even as it attempts to reject a claim made in the This is Breaking People report, namely that staff on Manus Island had a legal requirement to report homosexual activity to PNG police.

 

The letter itself only states that “there is no mandatory obligation under PNG domestic law”, not that such behaviour could not and would not ever be reported to the PNG Government or police – thus reinforcing the potential threat to LGBTI people seeking asylum.

 

The threat of criminal prosecution under PNG law has even been directly brought to the attention of people seeking asylum being detained on Manus Island. From The Guardian in September 2014[viii]:

 

Guardian Australia has obtained a copy of an orientation presentation shown to asylum seekers on Manus after they arrived on the island. It was prepared by the Salvation Army and shows a picture of two men kissing with a large red cross through it.

 

“The delivery notes attached to the presentation warn; “Homosexuality is illegal in Papua New Guinea. People have been imprisoned or killed for performing homosexual acts.”

 

A spokesman for the Salvation Army confirmed the slides were used in the presentation to asylum seekers and said they formed part of a “broader education program about life in PNG.””

 

160427 Refugee Submission No Kissing

The slide from the Salvation Army presentation that was shown to people seeking asylum after their arrival on Manus Island (source: Guardian Australia).

 

Given this context, and applying the precedent of Toonen decision above, it is undeniable that the treatment of LGBTI people seeking asylum by the Australian Government is in clear breach of international human rights law.

 

This breach also directly causes other serious harms to these people seeking asylum. This includes increased discrimination against, and ostracising of, LGBTI people by other people seeking asylum in these detention centres.

 

As has been highlighted by multiple reports, including Amnesty International’s This is Breaking People, work by Human Rights Watch[ix], and the previously quoted article in The Guardian, the threat of criminalisation means LGBTI people who have been the victim of mistreatment in the detention centres – whether by other people seeking asylum or even detention centre employees – are far less likely to bring such mistreatment to the attention of relevant authorities.

 

Distressingly, these reports include multiple allegations that gay and bisexual men seeking asylum have been subject to sexual assaults inside detention centres but, due to the threat of the criminal laws being imposed on them for their homosexuality, have chosen not to make official complaints about these assaults.

 

That seems like an inevitable outcome of the offshore detention centre system created by successive Australian Governments, and yet it is no less abhorrent for this inevitability.

 

This abhorrent situation is reflected in the quotes of gay asylum seekers in both The Guardian article and Human Rights Watch report. From Human Rights Watch:

 

“A gay asylum seeker said, “I have not come to stay in Manus, a country where it’s possible [for a gay man] to be jailed for 14 years. If I wanted to live like this I would have stayed in Iran and gone to prison, been released, and then sent to prison again.”

 

“Another said, “Everyone leaves me. No one considers me a friend. Those few men who do are only with me because they want to take advantage of me sexually. They become my friends and after they use me they leave. And make fun of me. It’s very hard here.””[x]

 

And from The Guardian article[xi]:

 

“Author Karim writes:

 

“In this camp I suffer a lot. For example about four month ago I had to protect myself from a vicious man who tried to rape me, I lodged a complaint against the man, but I’ve got no reply yet.

 

“Life in the camp became harder because after that incident everyone stopped talking to me, I am completely alone, they are bullying and humiliating me at all time.

 

“I asked the psychologists to help me, but I’ve been ignored.”

 

“[Another author] Ahmed continues:

 

“I have to hide my sexuality because in this country, like Iran, there are a lot of people – fanatics – whom if they find out anyone is gay they would harass them and maybe even try to kill them.

 

“I have to hide my personality once again. I have to lie as someone else.

 

“It feels like this is a disease that is consuming me for all these years and society will never leave me alone. It feels like the universe doesn’t want you to live in the serenity of one moment, I don’t know what I have done to the universe, or what it has against me.

 

“I can’t live one moment without anxiety stress and sadness, it doesn’t let me live happily with anyone who I love or feel love, I don’t know what is my crime that I have to be punished so harshly.”

 

And from Omid (also in The Guardian article):

 

“I couldn’t return to Iran and be executed by the Iranian government. Hence living in PNG was not any better, because being gay is considered a crime in PNG as well, and the punishment for such crime is 14 years imprisonment.

 

“I am so sorry that I was born gay. I never meant to hurt you, mum.

 

“I wish our boat had sunk in the ocean and stopped me living the most painful year of my life.

 

“I thought Australia and its people would be my protector, but they taught me otherwise.”

 

These are the tragic lessons that we, as a country, are teaching LGBTI people seeking asylum by detaining, processing and resettling them in countries that criminalise homosexuality.

 

Another direct and very real consequence of the threat of criminalisation is the associated failure to provide proper sexual health education and services to LGBTI people seeking asylum.

 

Leaving aside the claims that people seeking asylum on Manus Island have been denied access to condoms (which the February 2014 letter rejected, but which is difficult to verify in the absence of independent monitoring), it is highly questionable whether appropriate and inclusive sexual health education is provided to all people seeking asylum who are held, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

 

But it is beyond doubt that LGBTI people seeking asylum are forced to exercise extreme caution when attempting to access sexual health services given doing so may expose them to criminal sanction. Criminalisation in this context, as in many other areas, directly jeopardises public health outcomes, and specifically increases the risks of HIV transmission.

 

Indeed, as the United Nations Human Rights Committee wrote more than two decades ago in relation to Toonen:

 

“The Australian Government observes that statutes criminalising homosexual activity tend to impede public health programmes “by driving underground many of the people at the risk of infection”. Criminalisation of homosexual activity thus would appear to run counter to the implementation of effective education programmes in respect of the HIV/AIDS prevention. Second, the Committee notes that no link has been shown between the continued criminalisation of homosexual activity and the effective control of the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus.”

 

Thus, in addition to breaching the human rights of LGBTI people seeking asylum under international and Australian law by detaining them in countries that criminalise homosexuality, the Australian Government is also increasing the risks of those same people seeking asylum contracting a virus that, while manageable with access to appropriate care and treatment, nevertheless still killed 1.5 million people worldwide in 2013 alone[xii].

 

Before concluding this submission, I would like to make two final observations.

 

First, the Committee will note that throughout I have referred to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people seeking asylum. I have done so even while I acknowledge that for some members of this community – including lesbians, bisexual women and some transgender and some intersex people – the criminal laws against male homosexual activity in both Nauru and PNG will not technically apply.

 

Nevertheless, I believe that the unsafe situation created by these laws does apply to all LGBTI people seeking asylum who are detained there. By retaining laws against male homosexuality, both Governments effectively encourage discrimination across all of these population groups.

 

The consequence of this is that even for lesbians, bisexual women and those transgender and intersex people, they remain at increased risk of harassment and abuse (by both other people seeking asylum and detention centre employees), and sexual assault, as well as being denied access to appropriate and inclusive sexual health education and related services.

 

Second, I note that in both the June 2013 and February 2014 letters the Labor and Liberal-National Governments indicated that, were an LGBTI person seeking asylum to lodge an objection to being detained on either Nauru or PNG because of their laws against homosexuality, there is some possibility that they may not be sent to either place.

 

From the June 2013 letter:

 

“Pre-Transfer Assessment is undertaken prior to a person’s transfer to an RPC [Regional Processing Centre] to consider whether there are specific circumstances or special needs that mean it is not reasonably practicable to transfer an asylum seeker to an RPC at this time.

 

“Where a person raises concerns against a designated RPC, the Departmental officer refers to relevant country information, as well as the assurances received by Australia from the RPC governments[xiii], to assess if those charges are credible. If the person makes credible claims against all RPCs, the case is brought to the Minister’s attention in accordance with his guidelines for considering the exercise of his power under section 198AE of the Migration Act 1958 to exempt that person from transfer.”

 

From the February 2014 letter:

 

“Any claims made against Nauru and PNG by an IMA [Illegal Maritime Arrival][xiv], including claims concerning the treatment of homosexuals, bisexual, transgender and intersex asylum seekers in either country, are considered prior to transfer. Where an IMA makes such a claim, consideration is given to whether the IMA can be transferred to the proposed country, or an alternative country, or whether the IMA’s case should be referred to the Minister for consideration of exemption from transfer.”

 

While this process may appear to offer a small glimmer of hope to an even smaller number of LGBTI people seeking asylum, there are significant problems with any process that requires people to raise these concerns before being sent to either Nauru or Manus Island.

 

Imposing this requirement presupposes that the LGBTI person seeking asylum involved is aware that they are likely to be sent to one of these two countries, and that they also have knowledge of the criminal laws in both potentially applying to them.

 

It also requires them to be aware of the process involved in making such a claim (which is highly unlikely, especially in the absence of legal representation), and that they have the ability to raise it, with an appropriate Government representative, in the increasingly short period of time between detention by the Australian Government and transfer.

 

And it forces an LGBTI person seeking asylum to make this claim in an environment where they may be travelling with family members and friends (to whom they may not be ‘out’), or other members of their community that may not be accepting of different sexual orientations, gender identities or intersex people.

 

Finally, the June 2013 letter itself acknowledges that there may be some delay between a person seeking asylum protection from the Australian Government, and them making a claim on the basis of their LGBTI status. From that letter:

 

“Unlike other persecuted groups, sexual orientation and gender identity is not a readily visible characteristic and has to be revealed by the individual. Homosexual and transsexual applicants may, therefore, have only spoken to a handful of people, or none at all, about their sexuality and have kept it a secret. Interviewers and decision-makers should, therefore, not be surprised if an applicant suddenly raises the issue of sexual orientation or gender identity late in an application process, prefaced perhaps by an earlier weak or false claim on other grounds.”

 

Given this, it makes absolutely no sense to limit the ability of LGBTI people seeking asylum to make claims for protection against their detention on either Nauru or Manus Island, PNG to prior to their detention there – they should be able to make such a claim, and request transfer from these facilities (preferably to be processed in Australia), at any point.

 

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Overall, I believe that the actions of successive Australian Governments, in sending lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people seeking asylum to Nauru and PNG, both countries that criminalise male homosexuality, is a fundamental breach of international human rights law.

 

This breach has flow-on consequences, by leading to increased harassment and abuse of LGBTI people seeking asylum, including by other people seeking asylum and by detention centre employees, and exposing them to sexual assault, as well as denying them access to appropriate and inclusive sexual health education and related services, increasing their risk of contracting HIV.

 

I submit that, instead of detaining, processing and resettling LGBTI people seeking asylum on Nauru and Manus Island, PNG, the Australian Government must instead ensure that the claims of these people are processed in Australia, where they are not criminalised and where they can be provided with access to appropriate support services.

 

Thank you for taking this submission into account as part of this Inquiry. If the Committee would like additional information about any of the above, or to clarify any part of this submission, please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

 

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Appendix A

Dear Mr Lawrie,

Thank you for your email of 7 September 2012 to the former Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, the Hon Chris Bowen MP, concerning the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) asylum seekers. Your letter has been referred to me for a reply. I apologise for the delay in responding.

The Australian Government’s commitment to removing discrimination was demonstrated by its reforms to remove discrimination from 85 Commonwealth laws. These reforms, which passed in 2009, removed discrimination and equalised treatment for same-sex couples in areas of taxation, social security, health, aged care, superannuation, immigration, child support and family law.

The Government is also proceeding with introducing long overdue protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. On 21 March 2013, the Attorney-General introduced the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013. This Bill will ensure that protections from discrimination for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex are put in place as soon as practicable.

Concerning the transfer of post-13 August 2012 irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs) to Regional Processing Countries (RPC) and the treatment of LGBTI asylum seekers, as a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (the Refugee Convention), Australia takes its international obligations seriously and is committed to providing protection to refugees consistent with the obligations set out in the Refugees Convention and other human rights treaties to which Australia is a party. Any person has the right to seek protection in Australia from persecution in their home country.

The Government has signed Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with the Governments of Nauru and Papua New Guinea which permit people who arrived irregularly by boat on or after 13 August 2012 to be taken to Nauru or Papua New Guinea (Manus Island) for assessment of their claims against the Refugee Convention. Changes to the Migration Act 1958 (the Act) which give effect to regional processing arrangements were passed by the Australian Parliament and became law on 18 August 2012.

The MoU signed with Nauru and Papua new Guinea reaffirms the commitment of both countries to the Refugee Convention, with people transferred to the Regional Processing Country (RPC) to be treated with dignity and respect in line with human rights standards.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship recognises that human rights abuses and gender-related persecution can also be experienced by people on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. As such, an applicant’s gender-related claims may include claims relating to their
sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

In the guidelines set out in the Departmental Procedures Advice Manual 3 (PAM3), for the guidance of interviewing officers, they are advised that

“Unlike other persecuted groups, sexual orientation and gender identity is not a readily visible characteristic and has to be revealed by the individual. Homosexual and transsexual applications may, therefore, have only spoken to a handful of people, or none at all, about their sexuality and have kept it a secret. Interviewers and decision makers should, therefore, not be surprised if an applicant suddenly raises the issue of sexual orientation or gender identity late in an application process, prefaced perhaps by an earlier weak or false claim on other grounds.”

Pre-Transfer Assessment is undertaken prior to a person’s transfer to an RPC to consider whether there are specific circumstances or special needs that mean it is not reasonably practicable to transfer an asylum seeker to an RPC at this time.

Where a person raises concerns against a designated RC, the Departmental officer refers to relevant country information, as well as the assurances received by Australia from the RPC governments, to assess if those charges are credible. If the person makes credible protection claims against all RPCs, the case is brought to the Minister’s attention in accordance with his guidelines for considering the exercise of his power under section 198AE of the Migration Act 1958 to exempt that person from transfer.

A copy of the Minister’s s198AE guidelines and the Pre-Transfer Assessment form and guidelines can be found at the Department’s website at: www.immi.gov.au/visas/humanitarian/whatsnew.htm

Also for your information, I attach a copy of the relevant sections of PAM3 regarding gender and sexual orientation. For a full interactive copy of that document you may need to contact your nearest public library which should be able to provide free access.

Thank you for writing about this matter and I apologise again for the delay in respond.

Yours sincerely

[Name withheld]

Director

Protection Policy Section

6 June 2013

 

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Appendix B

Dear Mr Lawrie

Treatment of homosexual, bisexual, transgender and intersex asylum seekers

Thank you for your letter of 2 February 2014 to the Hon Scott Morrison MP, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, concerning the treatment of homosexual, bisexual, transgender and intersex asylum seekers. The Minister appreciates the time you have taken to bring these matters to his attention and has asked that I reply on his behalf. I regret the delay in responding.

As a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (the Refugees Convention), Australia takes its international obligations seriously. Australia is committed to treating asylum seekers fairly and humanely, and providing protection to refugees consistent with the obligations set out in the Refugees Convention, and other relevant international treaties to which Australia is a party.

The Australian Government has taken a number of measures to deter people smuggling and to ensure that people do not take the dangerous journey to Australia in boats organised by people smugglers. Under Australian domestic law, all illegal maritime arrivals (IMAs) entering Australia by sea without a visa will be liable for transfer to Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG) where any asylum claims they may have will be assessed, and if found to be a refugee, they will be resettled in Nauru and PNG or in another country.

Any claims made against Nauru and PNG by an IMA, including claims concerning the treatment of homosexuals, bisexual, transgender and intersex asylum seekers in either country, are considered prior to transfer. Where an IMA makes such a claim, consideration is given to whether the IMA can be transferred to the proposed country, or an alternative country, or whether the IMA’s case should be referred to the Minister for consideration or exemption from transfer.

Nauru and PNG are also both parties to the Refugee Convention. The Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) they have signed with Australia on the offshore processing arrangements reaffirm their commitment to the Refugees Convention and to treating people transferred with dignity and respect in accordance with human rights standards.

The enforcement of PNG domestic law is a matter for the Government of PNG. The government is aware of laws relating to homosexual activity in PNG and understands that there have been no recent reports of prosecution under those laws.

If homosexual activity should occur in the OPC, there is no mandatory obligation under PNG domestic law for Australian officers or contracted services providers to report such activity to the PNG Government or police.

The department notes the release of the reports by both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Amnesty International on the Manus OPC. Any reports received by the department will be reviewed, and observations or comments verified. Where reports make practical observations that can be implemented and would improve the operations of the centres, the government will address these in partnership with Nauru and PNG to address any deficiencies in good faith.

Any claims of mistreatment at the Manus OPC would be primarily a matter for the Administrator of the OPC. The Manus OPC is administered by PNG under PNG law, with support from Australia. The PNG Minister for Foreign Affairs and Immigration appoints the Administrator of the Centre (a PNG national) under section 15D of the Papua New Guinea Migration Act 1978 (the Act). The Administrator, who, under the Act has control and management of the Centre (currently the Chief Migration Officer, Head of the PNG Immigration and Citizenship Service Authority) has an Operations Manager at the OPC reporting to him, who has oversight of the day-to-day operations of the OPC.

To assist PNG in the implementation of the MOU, the government has contracted appropriately trained and experienced service providers to ensure that transferees’ needs are adequately met, including through the provision of health and welfare services. Transferees can report any concerns to OPC staff.

Regarding the distribution of condoms, I can assure you that condoms are available at the Manus OPC, and the department’s contracted health service provider, International Health and Medical Service, conduct regular health information sessions on safe sex practices.

Thank you for bringing your concerns to the Minister’s attention.

Yours sincerely

[Name withheld]

Acting Assistant Secretary

Community Programmes Services Branch

9 / 7 / 2014

 

**********

 

Footnotes

[i] Attempt to commit unnatural offences is also an offence under section 209, with a maximum penalty of 7 years imprisonment.

[ii] Article 17: 1. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation. 2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

[iii] Toonen v Australia, Communication No. 488/1992, UN Doc CCPR/C/50/D/488/1992 (1994).

[iv] From an article in New Matilda, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Toonen decision (20 Years Since Toonen Changed the World, 11 April 2014): “Perhaps most dramatic of all has been the impact of the Tasmanian UN decision around the world. The Tasmanian decision was the first time the UN had recognised the equal rights of LGBTI people. When the Indian High Court overruled that country’s anti-gay laws in 2009 it was on the basis of the Tasmanian decision. When the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon successfully urged the President of Malawi to release men gaoled for being gay, he cited the Tasmanian decision.In 2011 the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay, described the Tasmanian decision as a “watershed with wide-ranging implications for the human rights of millions of people.”

[v] Letter to Chris Bowen on LGBTI Asylum Seekers

[vi] A copy of the This is Breaking People report can be found here.

[vii] Letter to Scott Morrison about Treatment of LGBTI Asylum Seekers and Refugees sent to Manus Island, PNG

[viii] Guardian Australia, ‘Gay asylum seekers on Manus island write of fear of persecution in PNG’, September 24 2014.

[ix] Human Rights Watch, ‘Australia/Papua New Guinea: The Pacific Non-Solution’, July 15 2015.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Op cit, Guardian Australia, September 24 2014.

[xii] World Health Organisation Global Health Observatory data.

[xiii] Based on the principles of the Toonen UNHRC decision, these assurances are irrelevant – the continued existence of laws criminalising male homosexuality should be sufficient to prevent the transfer of LGBTI people seeking asylum to these countries.

[xiv] This is the term used in the letter, not one that I would personally use or approve.

What a binding vote for marriage equality is – and what it is not

With roughly ten weeks left until the 2015 ALP National Conference, and about one month into the public debate around a potential binding vote for marriage equality, there has been considerable media coverage of this issue.

Unfortunately, a lot of this coverage has been unhelpful, focussing on things that might be of interest to political commentators, but in practice having very little to do with what will actually be discussed by delegates sometime between July 24th and 26th.

This post aims to redress some of that imbalance, by attempting to clarify what a binding vote for marriage equality is – and just as importantly, what it is not – about.

A binding vote for marriage equality IS NOT about division, the leadership or the Greens

It was perhaps inevitable that at least some political reporters would cover the question of a binding vote as nothing more than an issue of ‘division’ within the Labor Party, rather than a genuine debate pushed by people who want to see their political party commit to fully supporting the equal rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

What was surprising – and perhaps disappointing – was to observe just how widespread this characterisation was. When even The Guardian writes articles that start like this:

Labor leadership divides over compulsory same-sex marriage yes vote

Tanya Plibersek wants to end the conscience vote, but Bill Shorten says it should stay. And Chris Bowen wants a conscience vote but will now vote for, not against.

Internal division within the Labor party over a binding vote on same-sex marriage has deepened, as senior frontbencher Chris Bowen backflips on his opposition to the issue” (http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/may/03/labor-leadership-divides-over-compulsory-same-sex-marriage-yes-vote?CMP=soc_567 )

then it is abundantly clear why Australia cannot sustain serious debate, especially on issues such as climate change or refugee policy that are significantly more complicated than this.

Hint to our journalists – this is what internal party democracy looks like, with different people putting forward different positions, and the arguments behind them, in the lead-up to a meeting where representatives from around the country will decide which approach Labor will ultimately take. That is discussion, not ‘division’.

A second recurring theme of coverage has been to view the entire issue through the prism of a supposed ‘leadership challenge’ between current Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who opposes binding, and Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek, who supports it (for example, raised in this Sydney Morning Herald article: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/tanya-plibersek-push-on-samesex-marriage-faces-defeat-amid-labor-leadership-split-20150430-1mww0s.html ).

This is wrong on a number of levels, not least because it is an issue Ms Plibersek has been campaigning on for a number of years – long before she was the Deputy Opposition Leader. It is somewhat galling that, in a political culture where figures are constantly derided for core and non-core promises, and commit backflip after backflip, here someone is being criticised for continuing to push the same progressive agenda she always has even after reaching a senior leadership position.

Indeed, the idea of binding in favour of marriage equality is something that has been pushed by a large number of people within the ALP for a very long time, including well before the last National Conference. At that particular meeting, 184 delegates voted to support a binding vote (narrowly losing to the 208 delegates who supported a conscience vote).

They must have been remarkably prescient, in December 2011, two Prime Ministers and a change of Government ago, to have been expressing a view on a leadership contest in 2015, between two people who were then the Ministers for Financial Services and Superannuation, and Human Services, respectively.

But the main reason why this is not about a leadership challenge is because, while her strong advocacy is obviously welcome, this issue is not really about Ms Plibersek at all.

There are a significant number of ALP MPs and Senators who have expressed their support for a binding vote over the course of the past month (with the Herald reporting that at least 25 members, or almost a third, of caucus back this move: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/huge-spike-in-labor-mps-support-for-samesex-marriage-20150508-ggx4z4.html ).

And there is an even larger number of ordinary ALP members, and Rainbow Labor members right around the country, who are pursuing this change. To reduce all of their – and our – activism to being about a non-existent leadership challenge is, putting it bluntly, utter rubbish.

Finally, there have a number of reports linking the push by Ms Plibersek and others within the party for a binding vote to a move to combat the rise of the Greens, and specifically as a response to the recent Victorian and NSW State Elections, where the Greens either retained or won the seats of Melbourne, Prahran, Balmain and Newtown.

Malcolm Farr in news.com.au was perhaps the most explicit on this theme: http://www.news.com.au/finance/work/labor-fears-it-is-losing-urban-strongholds-is-behind-the-push-for-binding-marriage-equality-vote/story-fn5tas5k-1227336759408

But, once again, it is hard to see how, when the majority of the Queensland and Tasmanian branches of the ALP voted to call for a binding vote at their state conferences in mid-2014, they were somehow ‘responding’ to elections in other states, that were still six-to-nine months away.

A binding vote for marriage equality has been a long-standing goal of progressive members of the Labor Party – and certainly existed long before the recent inner-city electoral successes of the Greens.

A binding vote for marriage equality IS about both principle and reality

As we all know by now, the overall fight for marriage equality is about nothing more (or less) than the equal treatment of all people, including LGBTI Australians and their relationships, in secular law.

The principle, at its core, is that the Government should not discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, by denying them access to state-sanctioned marriage, simply because of who they are and/or who they love.

Turning more specifically to the issue of whether the ALP should adopt a binding vote for marriage equality, it too is about principle – that, as a matter of fundamental equality and human rights, there is no legitimate reason to allow individual MPs and Senators to vote against the caucus position on this issue which acknowledges those rights.

In the same way that the ALP would not allow individual parliamentarians to break from party solidarity to vote for a racist law, there must not be special exceptions provided to allow some MPs and Senators to vote against the rights of LGBTI Australians.

We could have the entire debate, between now and the end of July, focussed exclusively on these two principles.

But marriage equality, and whether we adopt a binding vote, is about more than just that – as we have been starkly reminded over the past fortnight.

Because marriage equality is about reality too – the real-life couples who want nothing more than the right to be married, but who are currently denied that right by their own Government.

Couples like Sandra Yates and Lee Bransden, who were forced to seek money through a crowd-funding campaign to enable them to marry in New Zealand, where marriage equality has been legal for two years, before Ms Bransden dies from lung cancer (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-04/crowd-funding-campaign-for-gay-wedding-in-new-zealand/6442318 ).

This is the real face of marriage equality – the couples who are waiting for the same rights as everyone else, including those couples for whom time is very quickly running out (and of course the many couples for whom time has tragically already evaporated since the ban was first introduced in 2004).

In this instance, the crowd-funding campaign was successful, and the couple were married in New Zealand on Saturday (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-16/gay-tasmanian-couple-seal-dying-wish-with-new-zealand-wedding/6475226?WT.ac=statenews_tas ).

Which is heart-warming. But it should not have come to this, we should not be reduced to this – begging via public appeals just to allow older couples to leave the country to marry before they die, and even then stripping them of that legal equality as they re-enter Australia on their way home together for the last time.

This situation is indignity writ large.

Marriage equality is right in principle. Binding for marriage equality is right in principle. But it is the reality – of couples like Sandra and Lee – which reminds us why the issue is so urgent, and why we need as many MPs and Senators as possible, including all of those from the Australian Labor Party, to vote yes on this issue. Right. Now.

A binding vote for marriage equality IS NOT about the ‘rights’ of MPs and Senators to vote no

On the other side of this debate are those who would argue that, while marriage equality may be important, it is more important to respect the supposed ‘rights’ of individual MPs and Senators to vote against it.

The clearest demonstration of this view came on Sunday 3 May when Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen announced he had switched from his long-standing opposition to marriage equality, to personally supporting it – as part of an ongoing conscience vote. As reported by the Sydney Morning Herald (http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/chris-bowen-drops-opposition-to-samesex-marriage-20150503-1myp1v.html ):

“In a conscience vote I have decided I would support same-sex marriage and that’s not traditionally the approach I took last time,” he said.

“On my marriage certificate at home it has got the Australian coat of arms as it has on all of ours. It is our right as a citizen to get married and it is a right that should be applied equally.”

“I have friends who have had to go overseas to get married; I don’t think they should have to go overseas to get married as Australian citizens so I would support it.”

But Mr Bowen said the matter should be decided by each member of Parliament on its policy merits rather than politicians being forced to vote for or against same-sex marriage.

“I think people should be given their own time to develop their thinking and their approach,” Mr Bowen said…

In effect, Mr Bowen is saying that, while he acknowledges the fundamental injustice experienced by his friends, it would in practice be more unjust to compel his colleagues in the federal parliamentary Labor Party, including Senator Joe Bullock and MP Chris Hayes, to have to vote for his friends’ rights through a binding vote.

This is the reality – people who support a conscience vote in the ALP are actually saying that the right of individual MPs and Senators to vote against marriage equality is more important than the rights of real-life couples, like Sandra and Lee, to marry.

How can that possibly be? One is a genuine injustice – the denial of fundamental rights solely on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

The other? How is requiring a Labor member of the House of Representatives, or Senate, to vote in accordance with the Party platform and in favour of marriage equality, in any way unjust, and indeed so unjust that it outweighs anti-LGBTI discrimination?

The way in which opponents of a binding vote try to ‘dress up’ this issue as a matter of competing rights is by claiming that it would be a denial of their freedom of religion to have to vote this way. But, in making this argument, they are misunderstanding and misrepresenting what freedom of religion is, and most importantly, what it is not.

Freedom of religion is allowing people to believe what they wish, including on issues of ‘morality’, within their religion and their particular religious organisations, for example, choosing to recognise, or not recognise as the case may be, LGBTI-inclusive relationships as being equal.

There is nothing in any marriage equality Bill introduced to date that would compel an organised religion to conduct same-sex weddings against its wishes, or to recognise those relationships as equal within their own faith.

And that freedom of religion includes MPs and Senators within the Labor Party – even if they were obliged to support marriage equality under secular law, they would continue to be free to consider LGBTI relationships as second-rate (or worse) within their particular faith.

On the other hand, freedom of religion does not justify allowing those same parliamentarians to impose their particular religious belief, and their definition of marriage, on the rest of us – the growing number of Australians without faith, and the even larger number of believers, including some religious bodies themselves, who do support marriage equality.

The ‘freedom of religion’ of individual MPs and Senators is not a sufficient basis to override the freedom from religion of everyone else, and the legitimate expectation that we should be treated equally under secular law.

And it is definitely not enough of an argument to override the ordinary rules of the Australian Labor Party – which expects solidarity from its parliamentarians on everything from refugees, to metadata, single parent payments to live animal exports, and should be able to expect solidarity on this subject too.

There are only two possible ways in which ‘freedom of religion’ would be a genuine basis on which to argue against a binding vote.

The first would be if a marriage equality law sought to change the definition of marriage within religion(s) – including by ordering particular religious organisations to undertake LGBTI-inclusive marriage ceremonies. And, as already noted, exactly none of the marriage equality Bills proposed in Australia to date require this.

The second would be if a marriage law sought to discriminate against people of religious backgrounds – for example, a law that actively prohibited people of a particular faith (or perhaps prohibited people of different faiths) from marrying, and again no law proposed to date does anything of the sort [as an aside, those same people who claim it would be a denial of fundamental freedoms to compel a religious person to vote for marriage equality had no qualms when LGBTI individuals, including Senators Wong and Pratt, were compelled to vote against their own legal equality].

Given neither of these conditions exist, we are left with a large imbalance, between a genuine injustice on one side (the denial of the right to marry to LGBTI Australians) and only a perceived injustice on the other (the supposed denial of the freedom of religion of individual MPs and Senators), with the latter not withstanding close scrutiny.

The choice between the two should be easy.

Unfortunately, not only does Chris-sy-come-lately Bowen reach the wrong conclusion on this, he – and other recent marriage equality converts like Ed Husic and Julie Owens – take their (il)logic one step further.

As reported by the ABC on Wednesday 6 May, all three have personally switched from opposing to supporting marriage equality (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-06/western-sydney-labor-mps-swing-to-favour-gay-marriage/6447516 ). But the same report noted that “[a]ll three MPs said the freedom to choose through a conscience vote is an important condition for their support” (emphasis added).

Come again? Do we really have members of the ALP caucus saying they personally support marriage equality, which is also the position outlined in the ALP Party platform, but that they would not support marriage equality if this position was made binding on the Party’s MPs and Senators, in the same way that almost every other issue is subject to a binding vote?

This is really ‘through the looking glass’ stuff. Despite Ed Husic noting that “if there was no logical reason to prevent this change [marriage equality], why stand in the way of it?” (http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/support-for-samesex-marriage-grows-in-the-alp-as-mp-ed-husic-switches-position-20150505-ggu5um.html ) he apparently would do exactly that just to give his colleagues the ‘right’ to vote no.

This is an absurd position to adopt – one hopes it is only (preposterous) posturing ahead of National Conference, and that they will vote yes if and when a binding vote is ultimately adopted with respect to members of caucus.

But irrespective of whether they believe what they are saying or not, Bowen, Husic and Owens, and indeed any ALP MP or Senator who says that marriage equality is important, but not sufficiently important to bind on, should be reminded that this issue is not about them, or their colleagues, or their colleagues’ supposed ‘freedom of religion’ – it is about LGBTI people who are denied equality under secular law.

And there is no reason to extend that injustice for one day longer.

A binding vote for marriage equality IS about the ALP delivering as many yes votes as possible

Of course, the ALP on its own cannot pass marriage equality in the current term of Parliament – in order to pass before the 2016 Federal Election Tony Abbott must grant his MPs a conscience vote.

Consequently, there has been a lot of speculation about what impact an ALP binding vote might have over subsequent machinations within the Liberal Party. Indeed, it is something that I have covered multiple times elsewhere (including under the section “It’s Time to Bind: The Strategy’ here: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/07/13/hey-australian-labor-its-time-to-bind-on-marriage-equality/).

But, what we need to remember is that the ALP has zero actual control over what the Liberal Party room does behind closed doors – if it did, the Liberals would have granted a conscience vote at some point during the three and a half years that Labor has already had one.

What the ALP does control is its own internal rules.

By adopting a binding vote the Labor Party would be delivering as many votes as it possibly can towards the cause of marriage equality – more than the just over 50% of MPs and Senators who voted yes in September 2012, and more than the 78% of MPs, and 68% of Senators who indicate they would support it if a vote were held today (as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald here: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/huge-spike-in-labor-mps-support-for-samesex-marriage-20150508-ggx4z4.html ).

It is difficult to see how such a move could be criticised by others who also support marriage equality. To do so is effectively arguing ‘please do not provide more votes to the cause which we all agree is important’.

And yet, this is exactly what some have done in recent weeks – with perhaps the most prominent example being another recent convert to supporting marriage equality, openly-gay Liberal Senator Dean Smith.

Immediately after the latest of Ms Plibersek’s calls for a binding vote, Senator Smith responded by saying he was ‘personally disappointed’ by it (http://www.smh.com.au/national/gay-liberal-senator-dean-smith-slams-tanya-plibersek-over-gay-marriage-move-20150427-1mu99l.html ), that “I have always been distrustful of the Left on this issue and now my personal fears have been realised,” and further that “[t]his has put the cause back and she needs to explain herself to same-sex marriage proponents.”

In 2015, with Australia having fallen behind 18 (and soon to be 20) countries on this issue, we seriously have an openly-gay conservative Senator criticising a progressive Deputy Opposition Leader for having the temerity to seek to deliver more votes from her Party in favour of marriage equality.

Dean-ny-come-lately Smith could have been excused for those comments, given it was the day after the issue had ‘blown up’ in the media and upon further reflection he might have recognised how ridiculous they sounded.

Instead, the following week he gave an interview to The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/binding-vote-on-same-sex-will-set-back-cause-ask-a-gay-liberal/story-e6frg7bo-1227337768868 ), where all he managed to achieve was to dig his own hole that much deeper.

Not only did he reiterate his criticisms of Labor for daring to suggest they might all commit to supporting LGBTI equality, he crucially admitted that, even if there was a conscience vote on both sides:

“marriage equality would likely be defeated. He cautions the advocates of gay marriage inside his party to slow down. “Yes, community opinion is changing, but it is changing slowly and I am comfortable with it changing slowly.”

This admission completely undercuts his arguments. He inadvertently concedes that the only way marriage equality could be passed this term is by a binding vote from Labor and a conscience vote from the Liberals, and yet he is explicitly arguing against that outcome (and also arguing against the ability of a new Labor Government to independently pass marriage equality if it was elected in 2016).

But that isn’t even the most offensive thing about the article – that would be his repeated calls for people to ‘slow down’, to ‘wait’, for their fundamental equality. In addition to the above quote, he also said:

“Give the country as much time as it needs. This is not an issue that is going backwards. It is only heading in one direction and the pace of the forward direction should be left to the community to decide.”

Leaving aside the fact the vast majority of the community is already there (with 72% support from the public, the only roadblock is our Parliament), he directly contradicts his own reason for supporting equality, which is included in the very same article:

“I was on a plane. I realised that Tori (Johnson) was gay. His partner had lost his lifelong partner. I thought, ‘I have lots of gay friends who are waiting for the laws to change. They don’t want to go to New Zealand to marry’.”

So, his reason for finally backing marriage equality is that people shouldn’t have to wait for the same rights as their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts, that it is tragic if they die without having realised those rights, and yet in the next breath he argues that they should wait, for as long as he deems necessary (or, to use his own words, as long as he is comfortable with).

That is simply not good enough, not from someone who supports marriage equality as an issue, nor from one of the few openly-LGBTI people ever elected to the Australian Parliament.

Perhaps, instead of attacking people like Tanya Plibersek for trying to deliver additional votes for marriage equality, Senator Smith should spend a little more time making the case for change within his own party room.

If he is successful in that task – and we, the Labor Party, are successful in achieving a binding vote in July – then we could all even see marriage equality passed this year.

Liberal Senator Dean Smith, who is 'relaxed and comfortable' with LGBTI Australians being made to wait for their human rights.

Liberal Senator Dean Smith, who is ‘relaxed and comfortable’ with LGBTI Australians being made to wait for their human rights.

A binding vote for marriage equality IS NOT over

The last misconception that I wanted to address also happens to be the easiest to debunk – and that is the argument that, just because Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has come out against a binding vote, the debate is somehow over.

Yes, it was disappointing that Mr Shorten chose not to demonstrate leadership on this issue (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-04-30/shorten-rejects-calls-to-axe-same-sex-marriage-conscience-vote/6434354 ), instead falling back on platitudes like “I certainly have a view, though, that the best way to win the argument on marriage equality is to convince people not force them” (which, when you think about it, sounds like he is arguing for a conscience vote on anything and everything, not just on LGBTI rights).

Nevertheless, just because the parliamentary Leader of the Party has adopted this position does not mean that delegates to ALP National Conference in July will necessarily agree with him.

In fact, all we need to do is look to his predecessor, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and the positions which she took to the 2011 National Conference on this issue; to oppose marriage equality, and to support a binding vote.

Not only did the Conference overwhelmingly reject her homophobia on the first (by a margin so large that the count wasn’t called, so she wouldn’t be embarrassed by how comprehensive her ‘defeat’ was), but delegates very nearly voted against her position on the issue of binding, too –it was only defeated by a margin of 208 votes to 184.

Which demonstrates two things – one, that Shorten’s position might be influential, but it is very much possible for National Conference to disagree with the Leader and two, that all it would take is for 13 people to change their minds for the vote to be resolved differently this time around.

Some commentators (looking at you, Barrie Cassidy) might be surprised by the possibility National Conference could decide this way, but they shouldn’t be.

As raised earlier, almost a third of ALP MPs and Senators already support binding (25 out of 80 – with 33 against and 12 undeclared). And, as demonstrated by successive national ballots, for National President and Party Leader, the general membership is in fact much more progressive than the parliamentary caucus.

All of which is to suggest that success on a resolution for a binding vote is very much a possibility. But it will not happen without a sustained push in the weeks that remain – and that is something we all have a responsibility to pursue, in whatever way we can. It’s time we all demanded that #ItsTimeToBind.

No 1 Australia Sends LGBTI Refugees to Countries which Criminalise Homosexuality

I wish that I could have finished this countdown with something more positive. Indeed, I was tempted to elevate the achievement of the Sex Discrimination Amendment Act 2013 to No 1, just so I could end on a high note.

Alas, Australia’s ongoing mistreatment of refugees, including the gross violation of their human rights, is simply too heinous to ignore, and too severe to downplay. And in 2013, these abuses reached a new low, with the then Rudd Government introducing, and the incoming Abbott Government retaining, a new policy to permanently resettle refugees who arrive by boat in Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

More than just a fundamental breach of Australia’s international obligations, this policy is an attempt to permanently turn our backs to the humanity of people fleeing persecution in other countries, people who were seeking our compassion but, when they arrived, found none.

All of this is bad enough to attract the opprobrium of anyone interested in human rights, including LGBTI rights. But there is a special reason for LGBTI activists and advocates to oppose the resettlement of refugees in Nauru and Papua New Guinea – and that is that both countries continue to criminalise male homosexuality, by up to 14 years imprisonment.

While the letter of the law only applies to male homosexuality, any place which criminalises sex between people of the same-sex is not a safe environment to send refugees who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex. The potential dangers of doing so were apparent when the then Gillard Government first announced that Nauru and Manus Island were to be re-opened as ‘offshore processing centres’ in mid-2012.

At the time I wrote to the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, asking him whether the Government supported the rights of LGBTI asylum-seekers, and whether they could guarantee that the laws criminalising homosexuality would not be applied to the people we sent there (original letter: https://alastairlawrie.net/2012/09/07/letter-to-chris-bowen-on-lgbti-asylum-seekers/). A similar letter was sent to then Opposition Immigration Spokesperson Scott Morrison.

It took almost ten months, and some harassment, for the Government to reply, and when they finally did, in June 2013, they did not answer the question – effectively conceding that the criminal laws of Nauru and Papua New Guinea do apply to LGBTI refugees we send there (response here: https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/06/30/lgbti-refugees-on-nauru-manus-island/).

In a sign of things to come, Mr Morrison never replied. All of which meant that I was completely unsurprised by the Amnesty International Report “This is Breaking People”, released on 11 December 2013, which spelled out just how awful the consequences of this policy are for LGBTI asylum seekers (report here: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA12/002/2013/en/b2f135dc-3353-420d-b587-05d2b3db6e2f/asa120022013en.pdf see especially discussion on pages 73-75).

But just because I am unsurprised, does not mean I am not outraged – and you should be too. In short, gay refugees sent to Manus Island are:

  • Told that same-sex sexual activities are prohibited
  • Told that, if they engage in same-sex sexual activities, they will be reported to PNG Police (despite there being no legal onus for the operators to do so)
  • NOT provided with condoms (and with safe-sex education comprising a talk telling them not to have sex) and
  • Subject to bullying and harassment from other detainees on the basis of their sexual orientation.

In such circumstances, it is even less surprising that the senior Australian Government official at the camp, Renate Croker, said she was unaware of any person claiming asylum on the basis of persecution due to their LGBTI status.

Not only is this apparently incorrect – with Amnesty International interviewing several gay male asylum-seekers, including at least one quoted as saying he had made a claim on that basis – it also ignores the fact that people can be LGBTI but claim asylum because of persecution on other grounds (eg race, religion).

Indeed, one of the refugees interviewed claimed that other people have considered changing and/or changed their applications to be refer to other grounds, rather than be exposed to further bullying or harassment inside the camp, as well as to minimise the threat of being reported to PNG Police. He further “explained that some gay men have chosen to return to their home countries with IOM [International Organization for Migration]’s assistance, despite the risks they face upon return.”

All of which made the comments of Minister Morrison in response to the report all the more chilling. The following excerpt is taken from Oliver Laughland’s excellent article in the Guardian Australia on 13 December (titled Scott Morrison denies Amnesty report findings on Manus island detention):

Morrison said this [automatic reporting to PNG Police] was not the policy of the government but added all asylum seekers on Manus were provided with “clear advice” on “relevant laws” in Papua New Guinea. Homosexuality is illegal in PNG and can carry a 14-year sentence. Morrison was asked repeatedly by Guardian Australia if the “relevant laws” included those relating to homosexuality but he declined to go into detail, adding: “In these press conferences you get to ask the questions, you don’t get to give the responses as well.” Morrison added that the department was “unaware of any claims or declarations of homosexuality or of any reports of homosexuality being investigated by the police at the centre”. [full article here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/13/scott-morrison-denies-amnesty-report-findings-on-manus-island-detention).

In short, our current Immigration Minister has all-but confirmed that PNG laws criminalising homosexuality apply to LGBTI refugees sent there, as well as expressing a clear lack of understanding about the nature of sexual orientation, homophobia and the reasons why LGBTI refugees might not want to make a ‘declaration’, including but not limited to the risk of criminal punishment.

All-in-all, the situation confronting LGBTI refugees sent to Manus Island, and by extension, Nauru, is a nightmare. But it cannot be divorced from the broader nightmare that is Australia’s bipartisan ‘Pacific Solution Mark II’. The fact that we are sending any refugees to be processed, and permanently resettled, on Nauru and in PNG is a massive failure of our political system, and of the Australian people for allowing it to happen, for it to be done in our name.

Tragically, as 2013 draws to a close, it is unclear how any of this is going to change. I would like to be able to end this article, and this countdown, by saying something like “Here’s hoping in 2014 we take the first steps towards a humane refugee assessment system.” But the pessimist in me, reflecting on all of the events of the past 12 to 18 months, wants to say instead “Please just don’t let it become any worse”.

LGBTI refugees on Nauru & Manus Island

So, the past few weeks have been pretty busy (with the SDA Bill and my Change.org petition to help ensure the national Health & Physical Education curriculum is genuinely LGBTI-inclusive). One thing which happened earlier in June, which I had previously committed to place on my blog, is that I finally received a response to my letter to the then Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen – which I first sent in September 2012!

It has only taken 9 months, including a follow up letter to Minister Bowen, a new message to Minister Brendan O’Connor, who was appointed in February, and then some ongoing twitter harassment/stalking. Even after all of this the response which I have received is not from the Minister himself (either of them) but rather from the Director of the relevant Branch in the Department.

I have included the full text of the letter below. But I have chosen to omit the name of the Branch Director, because as a former public servant I can only imagine that they were instructed to draft the letter in this particular way, and after all, this is about the Government’s policy and not an individual.

In my original letter (see: https://alastairlawrie.net/2012/09/07/letter-to-chris-bowen-on-lgbti-asylum-seekers/), amongst other questions, I asked whether the Government supported the rights of LGBTI people to seek asylum, as well as whether these asylum seekers would be subject to the laws of Nauru and Papua New Guinea (Manus Island) which still criminalise homosexuality.

The response to the first question appears to be yes – the letter at least accepts the fact that people can claim refugee status on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity (although it is less clear that intersex status is accepted). How well Australia implements this commitment is, of course, a much longer discussion.

However, the letter refuses to answer the second key point. I can only assume that, based on the Director’s avoidance of this issue, the criminal offences relating to homosexuality in Nauru and Papua New Guinea do, at the very least, technically apply to the asylum seekers which we as a country distressingly continue to send to these places.

The letter then rather cryptically goes into detail about what individuals can do if they object to being transferred to a particular Regional Processing Country. While I would fully expect that the ‘Ministerial discretion’ which is alluded to would be exercised to override such concerns, I believe that the lawyers who represent LGBTI asylum seekers being sent to Nauru or Manus Island should at the very least raise their concerns under s198AE with the Minister (whoever that might be after the reshuffle tomorrow).

As an aside I don’t actually think that it matters whether the particular asylum seeker is seeking protection because of persecution on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity (or intersex status), merely that they are LGBTI and fear persecution by the Governments of Nauru or Papua New Guinea because of their ongoing criminalisation of same-sex activity.

I will now endeavour to ensure that LGBTI and/or general refugee advocates are aware of this advice and can take any appropriate steps (noting that these applications may have already been made to, and rejected by, the Minister for Immigration since the detention centres were reopened last August).

Overall, of course, even if LGBTI asylum seekers were removed from Nauru and Manus Island, this would only be ‘fiddling at the edges’ of the revived Pacific Solution, a policy so awful that it brings shame to the entire Australian population, myself included. No asylum seeker, whether LGBTI or not, should ever be sent to such places, for an indefinite period, merely for exercising their fundamental right to seek protection from persecution.

Most depressingly of all, the upcoming federal election doesn’t appear like it will change these policies – if anything, the probable election of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, with Scott Morrison as Minister for Immigration, will make things substantially worse.

On that ‘glass-completely-empty’ note, here is the response from the Department which only took 9 months to conceive:

Dear Mr Lawrie,

Thank you for your email of 7 September 2012 to the former Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, the Hon Chris Bowen MP, concerning the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) asylum seekers. Your letter has been referred to me for a reply. I apologise for the delay in responding.

The Australian Government’s commitment to removing discrimination was demonstrated by its reforms to remove discrimination from 85 Commonwealth laws. These reforms, which passed in 2009, removed discrimination and equalised treatment for same-sex couples in areas of taxation, social security, health, aged care, superannuation, immigration, child support and family law.

The Government is also proceeding with introducing long overdue protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. On 21 March 2013, the Attorney-General introduced the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013. This Bill will ensure that protections from discrimination for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex are put in place as soon as practicable.

Concerning the transfer of post-13 August 2012 irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs) to Regional Processing Countries (RPC) and the treatment of LGBTI asylum seekers, as a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (the Refugee Convention), Australia takes its international obligations seriously and is committed to providing protection to refugees consistent with the obligations set out in the Refugees Convention and other human rights treaties to which Australia is a party. Any person has the right to seek protection in Australia from persecution in their home country.

The Government has signed Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with the Governments of Nauru and Papua New Guinea which permit people who arrived irregularly by boat on or after 13 August 2012 to be taken to Nauru or Papua New Guinea (Manus Island) for assessment of their claims against the Refugee Convention. Changes to the Migration Act 1958 (the Act) which give effect to regional processing arrangements were passed by the Australian Parliament and became law on 18 August 2012.

The MoU signed with Nauru and Papua new Guinea reaffirms the commitment of both countries to the Refugee Convention, with people transferred to the Regional Processing Country (RPC) to be treated with dignity and respect in line with human rights standards.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship recognises that human rights abuses and gender-related persecution can also be experienced by people on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. As such, an applicant’s gender-related claims may include claims relating to their
sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

In the guidelines set out in the Departmental Procedures Advice Manual 3 (PAM3), for the guidance of interviewing officers, they are advised that

“Unlike other persecuted groups, sexual orientation and gender identity is not a readily visible characteristic and has to be revealed by the individual. Homosexual and transsexual applications may, therefore, have only spoken to a handful of people, or none at all, about their sexuality and have kept it a secret. Interviewers and decision makers should, therefore, not be surprised if an applicant suddenly raises the issue of sexual orientation or gender identity late in an application process, prefaced perhaps by an earlier weak or false claim on other grounds.”

Pre-Transfer Assessment is undertaken prior to a person’s transfer to an RPC to consider whether there are specific circumstances or special needs that mean it is not reasonably practicable to transfer an asylum seeker to an RPC at this time.

Where a person raises concerns against a designated RC, the Departmental officer refers to relevant country information, as well as the assurances received by Australia from the RPC governments, to assess if those charges are credible. If the person makes credible protection claims against all RPCs, the case is brought to the Minister’s attention in accordance with his guidelines for considering the exercise of his power under section 198AE of the Migration Act 1958 to exempt that person from transfer.

A copy of the Minister’s s198AE guidelines and the Pre-Transfer Assessment form and guidelines can be found at the Department’s website at: www.immi.gov.au/visas/humanitarian/whatsnew.htm

Also for your information, I attach a copy of the relevant sections of PAM3 regarding gender and sexual orientation. For a full interactive copy of that document you may need to contact your nearest public library which should be able to provide free access.

Thank you for writing about this matter and I apologise again for the delay in respond.

Yours sincerely

[Name withheld]

Director

Protection Policy Section

6 June 2013

Letter to Chris Bowen/Brendan O’Connor on LGBTI Asylum Seekers

Update 6 February 2013: So, this correspondence was never answered by Minister Bowen, before he left the portfolio in last week’s reshuffle. I don’t know for sure what that is a reflection of, but can only assume that not answering in 6 months means he was not open to scrutiny on the issue of LGBTI asylum-seekers and in particular their treatment on Nauru, Manus Island and, eventually, in Malaysia.

With the appointment of Brendan O’Connor as the new Minister for Immigration I have resent the original correspondence, including the questions below, to Minister O’Connor. If I have not received a response within 4-6 weeks it will be time to pursue this again but in a more public format. Thanks for reading.

Original Post: Like many Australians, I was appalled by the recent decision of the Australian Government to accept the recommendations of the Houston Report and send asylum seekers to Nauru and Papua New Guinea for indefinite periods (and by the Government’s refusal to rule out sending asylum seekers to Malaysia in the longer-term). I am also appalled by the potential consequence of this decision for LGBTI asylum seekers, and have written the following letter to Australia’s Immigration Minister, Mr Chris Bowen. I will of course write a similar letter to the Opposition’s Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison, given the Liberal and National Parties supported the move to ‘offshore processing’. As always I will post any response received.

Dear Minister Bowen,

I am writing to express my disagreement and disappointment with the Australian Government’s decision to implement the offshore processing of asylum seekers.

I think that this decision is a failure of our human rights obligations under international law, not to mention a failure of our moral obligations as human beings to open our arms and our hearts to people fleeing persecution.

Given that your government has now committed to process asylum seekers in Nauru, Papua New Guinea and, in the medium term, through ‘regional processing’ in Malaysia, I am also writing with several questions which I would like answered about one particular issue – the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) asylum seekers.

  1. Do you acknowledge that there are many countries around the world where being LGBTI is illegal and/or subject to government harassment and intimidation?
  2. Do you accept that LGBTI people have the right to seek asylum on the grounds of persecution of their sexual orientation or gender identity?
  3. Do you agree that this means LGBTI asylum seekers should be accepted by countries like Australia, rather than be returned to their originating country and asked to ‘return to the closet’ or conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity? (Disturbingly, there have been some cases within Australia suggesting that LGBTI asylum seekers can be returned in such circumstances, something which is not required of people fleeing persecution on political, religious or other grounds. I am simply seeking your confirmation that you do not support this special and discriminatory imposition on LGBTI asylum seekers).
  4. Do you support the right of LGBTI people to seek sexual companionship, form loving relationships and found families no matter where they are in the world? Are these fundamental rights which should be protected?
  5. Do you agree that asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity (or indeed who are fleeing on other grounds but are LGBTI), should not be sent to any country which criminalises or discriminates against LGBTI people?
  6. Are you aware that homosexuality is currently illegal in all three countries to which the Australian Government currently intends to send asylum seekers?
  7. Will the laws of these jurisdictions apply to asylum seekers being detained by the Australian government (or, in the case of Malaysia, to asylum seekers who may be living in the community)?
  8. What representations have the Australian Government made to, and what agreements have the Australian Government sought with, the governments of Nauru, Papua New Guinea and Malaysia, on the specific treatment of LGBTI asylum seekers?
  9. Do you agree that, if LGBTI asylum seekers are unable to seek sexual companionship, form loving relationships or found families in Nauru, Papua New Guinea and Malaysia, that this is a fundamental breach of their human rights?
  10. As a fellow human being, are you comfortable that the Australian Government will reject someone who is fleeing the death penalty in another country for simply being who they are and instead send them to a third country where it remains a criminal offence to be who they are?

I have copied this letter to the Prime Minister, Foreign Affairs Minister and Attorney-General given these issues cut across several portfolios. I look forward to your prompt response.

Yours sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

As an illustration of why there remain so many LGBTI refugees, the following map indicates the countries in which homosexuality remains illegal – while there has been significant progress over the past 50 years, there remains far too many countries shaded black, including of course Papua New Guinea:

Decriminalization_of_homosexuality_by_country