No, It’s Not Illegal For Refugees To Pass Through Other Countries Before Seeking Asylum
Take it from an expert, not Bob Katter.
Speaking to Sky News last week, Bob Katter, conservative politician and man who desperately needs to meet Charles Dickens’ Christmas ghosts, once again expressed his opinion that many people seeking asylum in Australia are not refugees. His reasoning was that they mustn’t genuinely fear persecution in their home country because they passed through other countries to get here, rather than stopping at the first one they arrived in. There’s a lot to unpack here, but to put it simply: No.
“These people are not refugees,” said Katter in an interview that made me physically nauseous. “If you leave a country on this side of the globe and go right around the globe to this side of the globe, get past 20 countries in the process, you are not a refugee — you’re not fleeing from, you are going to. They are choosing the country they want to go to.”
Katter’s assertion is ignorant of the fact that refugees aren’t simply fleeing persecution in their country of origin. They are also seeking protection, and a safe place to live peacefully.
If you had to leave your home country due to fear of torture or death, you wouldn’t simply cross the border and call it a day if your neighbouring countries were also unsafe. For example, someone fleeing persecution for being gay in Iraq would still be in danger in Iran. One can’t be expected to remain in a fire just because they arrived there from a frying pan.
Many asylum seekers who arrive in Australia via boat pass through Malaysia or Indonesia — two countries who are not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor the 1967 Refugee Protocol. There is no legal framework for dealing with refugees in Malaysia, and as such, they are treated as undocumented migrants. This puts them at risk of arrest and deportation back to the country from which they fled, as well as detention, prosecution and whipping.
Asylum seekers in Indonesia are in a similar situation, with limited work rights and access to basic social services. They also have no possibility of permanent settlement in the country. If permanent settlement and protection was a possibility in Malaysia, Indonesia, or any of the countries through which they passed, it is unlikely asylum seekers would attempt the dangerous voyage to Australia.
While Katter is correct in that there is an element of choice for asylum seekers, it is only in that they choose to travel to countries they believe will protect them, rather than attempt settlement in countries they know won’t.
People fleeing persecution journey to Australia because it has pledged to protect refugees, and has a reputation for being a safe, democratic country where the rule of law is upheld. The hope is that, unlike many other countries, Australia will allow them to live peacefully while working to meet their own basic needs. Australia just needs to live up to that faith.
Amanda Yeo is a lawyer admitted in NSW. She previously worked in human rights law to assist asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMYeo.