govt overhauls refugee system

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    ANDREW TILLETT CANBERRA, The West Australian
    January 7, 2011, 8:23 am

    The Federal Government has promised to process boat people "faster and fairer" after today announcing a revamped system to assess refugee claims.

    In a major change, those who initially fail to prove they are genuine refugees will be able to appeal to judges for the right to stay in Australia for the first time in almost a decade.

    An extra two Federal Magistrates will be appointed to handle the increased workload from asylum claims.

    The High Court unanimously ruled last year the refugee status assessment system in place lacked "procedural fairness" after two Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers who faced deportation won a test case challenging the regime.

    The verdict affected hundreds of asylum seekers stuck in detention centres waiting to have their claims assessed, including those who had twice been rejected and were on a pathway to being deported.

    Under the system rejected by the High Court, asylum seekers could not challenge a ruling against them in courts. Judicial review had been restricted by the Howard Government, with the Rudd Government failing to reinstate it when it introduced the refugee status assessment system in 2008.

    But with the new regime, an Immigration Department official will initially perform a "Protection Obligations Determination" of a boat persons asylum claim.

    If the bureaucrat clearly believes the person is a refugee, they will be given a visa but if they cannot establish the asylum seeker is entitled to a protection visa, the case is then referred to an independent reviewer. If the review is negative, an asylum seeker will be able to challenge that decision in court.

    The new Protection Obligations Determination process will apply to asylum seekers who arrive by boat at an excised offshore place from March 1, as well as those who arrived previously and who have not had a Refugee Status Assessment interview by that date.

    Mr Bowen said the changes would mean an earlier decision would be made on whether a boat arrival is entitled to protection in Australia.

    He said that procedural adjustments were also being made to the refugee assessment process to ensure that decisions were made more fairly.

    "Following the recent High Court ruling, my department has amended its processes in order to correct and, in future, avoid any possible procedural unfairness," Mr Bowen said.

    "In particular, my department has strengthened processes so that asylum seekers are given an opportunity to respond to any information that may have a negative effect on the assessment of their claims."

    The Gillard Government has also asked the Information Commissioner, Professor John McMillan, to advise the government on possible options for improving the efficiency and minimising the duration of the judicial review process for irregular maritime arrivals.

    Immigration lawyer David Manne, who launched the High Court case on behalf of the Tamils, said via Twitter the Government's announcement was "very disappointing" and entrenched discrimination against boat arrivals.
 
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