LGBTI Refugees and the 2013 Federal Election

It appears that my previous post on LGBTI asylum seekers was overly optimistic (well, to be perfectly honest it wasn’t that optimistic to begin with – it’s just that the reality has turned out to be even worse than the already dire situation).

After more than 9 months of trying to get an answer out of the Commonwealth Immigration Minister (first Chris Bowen, and then Brendan O’Connor), when I eventually received a response from the Immigration Department instead in June, it failed to answer whether the criminal laws against homosexuality of Nauru and Papua New Guinea applied to refugees in processing centres there.

This omission clearly implied that the criminal laws do in fact apply. However, the letter left open an interpretation that refugees who were LGBTI, and feared persecution (or prosecution) in these countries, could apply to the Minister to be transferred to Australia, on the basis that their rights could not be guaranteed in those countries.

Unfortunately, that no longer appears to be the case. In the time since that response the Prime Minister changed, and within a month of Rudd’s return he had announced the ‘PNG Solution’, with a similar deal with Nauru revealed shortly afterwards. These policies moved beyond offshore processing, to include the permanent ‘resettlement’ in those countries of any and all refugees who arrive in Australia by boat.

Now, let me say from the outset that I completely oppose these policies, and believe them to be unconscionable, inhumane, and probably contrary to international law. Australia should not be in the business of abrogating its responsibility to offer protection to people who are fleeing persecution by simply dumping these people in other countries. And my opposition applies to the ‘resettlement’ of all refugees, irrespective of the grounds of their persecution (eg race, religion, nationality etc).

However, as a gay man, and in particular as a passionate advocate for LGBTI rights, I find policies that involve the resettlement of LGBTI refugees in countries that criminalise homosexuality particularly abhorrent. That is exactly what Australia is doing – taking any LGBTI refugee who arrives by boat and sending them to countries which make male homosexuality a criminal offence, liable to up to 14 years’ imprisonment.

I know that many other people agree with me – in fact, the only pleasing thing arising from this horrible situation has been the emergence of a variety of voices condemning these policies. This has meant that the Labor Government has been unable to avoid questions on this particular topic (something which they had largely managed to successfully do in the previous 10 months).

But it doesn’t make the answers given by Government Ministers any easier to stomach. On 8 August, Serkan Ozturk of the Star Observer reported that the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus (an intelligent man who really should know better): “confirmed the government intends to send all asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat without a visa – including LGBTI people fleeing persecution and people living with HIV – to Papua New Guinea (PNG) for processing and permanent resettlement despite laws criminalising homosexual sex, high rates of HIV infection and limited medical and social infrastructure on the impoverished island-nation…

When questioned by the Star Observer on whether LGBTI asylum seekers would be sent to PNG, Dreyfus was unequivocal.

“You’ve outlined an aspect of PNG law which is of general application but as I say we are not ruling out any group,” Dreyfus said.

“At the same time our Minister for Immigration, Tony Burke, has made it very clear that those transfers won’t occur until there is appropriate accommodation and appropriate circumstances for everyone who is sent.”

Pressed on whether that meant the Australian government would be placing pressure on PNG to reform legal codes, Dreyfus said he would not be drawn “giving a running commentary” on the laws of neighbouring countries, including PNG, Indonesia or Malaysia.

“We don’t think that’s necessary in order for Australia to comply with our international legal obligations and the obligations we have under the Migration Act.””

The fact that the Government is aware of this situation, and specifically the potential consequences of sending LGBTI refugees to these countries, but has continued on along this path irrespective of the dangers, is damning.

Sadly, the Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr, isn’t any better. On 6 August the ABC reported (from what I believe was a response to an oursay question from Senthorun Raj) that Senator Carr similarly confirmed that homosexual asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat will be resettled in PNG despite facing prison under local laws, even though those laws conflict with contemporary Australia values.

“I am concerned about… what we see as a grotesquely outdated, legal position applying in PNG. I understand – and I know this is little comfort – but there have been few if any charges laid or prosecutions made under laws prohibiting homosexual activity in PNG,” he said. You are right on one thing, Senator Carr: that is little comfort.

Tony Burke, the current Minister for Immigration (and the third person to hold that post this year), also believes that this policy is appropriate. However, in one of the most Orwellian moments of the 2013 federal election campaign (or indeed in recent Australian politics more generally), he stated that he had been advised that ‘no part of the caseload so far’ had arisen (ie no LGBTI person had been sent to Nauru or PNG so far).

The transcript, from a media conference on 1 August, is as follows:

Question: Sorry Minister, just to go out to Manus Island for a moment. Given that homosexuality is still considered a crime in PNG, but our government has pledged to transfer all asylum seekers regardless of their sexuality, what efforts have been undertaken to make sure that those transferred will not be persecuted for their sexuality, either as detainees, or if they are then settled in PNG?

Tony Burke: In the first instance we have no part of the caseload so far where this issue has arisen, no part of the caseload where this has arisen. In…

Question: So does that mean…

Tony Burke: Please, please, when other people were talking over you I made sure you got the run so allow me to answer your question.

I’ve been very careful throughout all of this to not carve out any exclusions from the policy. And I explained the implications of that with the specific reference to what the Opposition have attempted to do with women and children. There are very deep implications if we start carving people out. And if you do that, you are by no means taking a – I’m saying you, but anyone doing that is by no means taking a compassionate response because of the automatic reaction that people smugglers will engage in.

My language on this has not changed, which is people will be sent when we are confident they will be safe, when we are confident that appropriate accommodation and services are in place, and I’m not going to define it further than that.”

Which raises far more questions than it provides answers. It is possible that what he meant to say was that no-one sent to Manus Island has lodged a refugee claim on the basis of persecution of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. But that doesn’t mean those claims won’t emerge at a later point (it is definitely possible that a LGBTI refugee will not disclose their status in the limited time after arrival in Australia and before transfer, but that it would instead emerge at a later point).

And it ignores the fact that someone who is seeking refugee protection on the basis of race, religion or other grounds can also be LGBTI (even if just as someone who has sexual intercourse with someone else of the same sex). This would not be immediately apparent to an interviewer and there are foreseeably several reasons why they would NOT disclose their particular circumstances (especially if fleeing as part of a family group where their family is unaware of their sexual orientation).

But the most obvious flaw in Minister Burke’s advice is that all refugees who arrive by boat, including children, are being ‘resettled’ in PNG and Nauru. Those children could grow up to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or they may have been born intersex, and it may not be known to that child, their family or indeed anyone else at the time of resettlement. It does not make it any more acceptable that as a country we exposed that child to future criminal prosecution (or at the very least, societal discrimination), simply because we didn’t know of their status.

We DO know that this policy is wrong and should be stopped, which means that we are collectively responsible for what happens in the future as a result of it.

Unfortunately, while some of the positive reforms of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Labor Governments will be dismantled by the incoming Abbott Liberal-National Government it seems there is bipartisan agreement on the idea of resettling refugees in South Pacific countries. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, and Shadow Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison, both appeared to welcome the announcement by Rudd of the PNG policy, while they have also announced their own plans to resettle refugees in Nauru (aka “tent city”).

It should also be pointed out that, last September, at the same time that I wrote to the Immigration Minister (and Prime Minister and Attorney-General), I also wrote to the Shadow Minister, Opposition Leader and Shadow Attorney-General, raising the same concerns about the processing or resettlement of LGBTI refugees in countries which criminalise homosexuality. No-one from the Opposition ever responded to these letters, which perhaps indicates how seriously they take those concerns.

The fact that, as it stands, both major parties endorse this policy means that, no matter who is elected on Saturday, the incoming Government will continue to abrogate its responsibilities to offer protection to all refugees, including refugees who are LGBTI. That it will inevitably continue to be cheered along by sections of the press will make it even harder to endure.

Perhaps the only ray of hope in this awful mess is that the High Court might do what the public should (but won’t) on Saturday – tell our MPs, from both the ALP and the Liberal-National Coalition, that resettling refugees in PNG and Nauru is unconscionable, inhumane, and, hopefully, unlawful. So, to our distinguished High Court Justices I say: no pressure, but it seems this is now entirely up to you.

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