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HREOC media release: Refugee policy must have humanitarian issues as a central concern

Commission Commission – General

3 October 2007

Refugee policy must have humanitarian issues as a central concern

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) has called on the Australian Government to maintain its role as a global citizen by committing to a refugee policy that puts humanitarian needs first.

Human Rights Commissioner Graeme Innes and national Race Discrimination Commissioner Tom Calma made the call in response to the government’s decision to reduce the number of African refugees.

"The Australian Government should maintain its role as a principled and committed global citizen through a refugee policy that makes it a priority to respond to the worsening plight of refugees and their need for asylum from persecution and war," Commissioner Innes said.

"The government’s decision to cut African refugee numbers because they are not settling and adjusting to the Australian way of life is at odds with the primary concern of the Refugee Convention, that is, providing a safe haven for people who are fleeing persecution in their country of origin.

"Of course people fleeing war torn countries or cruel regimes may well have special settlement needs, but this is not a reason to reject them," Mr Innes said.

"Rather, it is the very reason we should embrace them and work towards helping them rebuild their lives.

"Australia has a good record of settling refugees from a whole range of different circumstances, and while initially some groups may have found it difficult to adapt to their new country, this can be overcome by the government continuing to invest in settlement services such as language schools and education.

"I see no reason why we can’t continue this humanitarian approach today."

Commissioner Calma also expressed concern that singling out one community or group as not settling and integrating well is not the Australian way to deal with issues of settlement.

"Australians have long accepted that people should not be treated differently on the basis of their race or ethnic origin and it is troubling that the changes to the intake policy for African refugees seem to do just that," Commissioner Calma said.

"I’m worried that recent statements by the government could add to the hardship of our African communities by providing official credence to already existing prejudices against African refugees," Mr Calma said.

HREOC urged the government to recommit to making humanitarian grounds a primary consideration when determining refugee intake policy.

Media contact: Louise McDermott 02 9284 9851 or 0419 258 597