UNHCR urges Australia to end separation of refugee families

By agency reporter
July 19, 2018

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is alarmed by the separation of a Sri Lankan refugee family in Sydney by the Government of Australia. 

Speaking in Geneva on 17 July 2018, UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said, "The deportation overnight of the father leaves his Sri Lankan partner, who is a recognised refugee, alone in Australia with their 11-month-old daughter. This contravenes the basic right of family unity, as well as the fundamental principle of the best interests of the child. UNHCR sought assurances from the Government of Australia that the man would not be removed from Australia and be allowed to remain with his family. Private legal representatives had also lodged multiple requests for intervention with the Minister for Home Affairs. We regret that those collective representations were unsuccessful."

Australia’s broader current policy of 'offshore processing and deterrence' has led to the ongoing separation of refugee families since 2013. Asylum-seekers who arrive to Australia by sea have been prevented from reuniting with their loved ones in Australia, including spouses, parents and children.

UNHCR is aware of several other parents currently held under Australian 'offshore processing' in Nauru, whose spouses were transferred to Australia for medical reasons, including in order to give birth. The Government of Australia has refused to allow them to be reunited in Australia, despite the fact that neither Nauru nor Papua New Guinea are considered suitable places of settlement for the vast majority of refugees.

In more than one instance, children have also remained in Nauru separated from an adult parent sent to Australia for medical care. This has had a particularly devastating effect on their deteriorating mental health.

Andrej Mahecic said, "This latest incident goes beyond a refusal to reunite families, to instead actively and indefinitely separate them. Current legislation prevents the Sri Lankan mother in this case from ever sponsoring her spouse to join her and their child in Australia. The husband and father is likewise prevented from ever obtaining even a short-term visa to visit his family. Sadly, the family members expect to be kept apart indefinitely.

"UNHCR is urging the Government of Australia to uphold the fundamental principle of family unity, and allow family members to be together."

Background

The Sri Lankan couple separated on 17 July has been customarily married since 2016, and had declared their relationship to the Australian authorities. The mother and infant daughter were granted asylum last week. The 30-year-old father was unable to form part of their application, having previously made his own asylum claim prior to the formation of their relationship. The Australian Minister for Home Affairs has a discretionary power to permit a second claim for asylum in exceptional circumstances, or to grant a visa on compassionate grounds.

In conjunction with Australia’s current 'offshore processing' policy, refugees and asylum-seekers who have arrived to Australia by sea since 2013 have been barred by law from making an application for any Australian visa. This prohibition may only be lifted at the non-compellable discretion of the Minister for Home Affairs. During the past five years, the Minister has exercised this discretion to permit applications for temporary visas only, such that those recognized as refugees may remain in Australia for three or five years. As a relationship with either an Australian permanent resident or citizen is an eligibility requirement for all family visas, these people are precluded from sponsoring and reuniting with their family members.

UNHCR is aware several other fathers currently held under Australian 'offshore processing' in Nauru, whose spouses were transferred to Australia for medical reasons in order to give birth. The Government of Australia has refused to allow them to be reunited in Australia, despite the fact that neither Nauru nor Papua New Guinea are considered suitable places of settlement for the vast majority of refugees. UNHCR’s consistent position is that no refugee or asylum-seeker currently in Australia should be returned to Papua New Guinea or Nauru respectively.

Since January 2014, Australia has also afforded the lowest processing priority to family visa applicants sponsored by family members who had become permanent residents of Australia after originally arriving by sea. This has left hundreds of Australian permanent residents unable to reunite with spouses, children, and other close relatives abroad.

Family unity is a fundamental human right, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which Australia is party). Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the best interests of the child must be a primary consideration in any decision made or action taken that concerns them.

* Recent comment from The Americal Civil Liberties Union on the separation of families here

* UNHCR http://www.unhcr.org/uk/

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