Rudd ponders asylum changes
As details emerge of a deadly new boat tragedy off Christmas Island, PM Kevin Rudd is considering more changes to asylum policy.PT0M0S 620 349
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has dismissed Kevin Rudd's suggestion that Labor will seek to make changes to the UN Refugee Convention, describing it as a ''red herring'' in the asylum seeker debate, and saying the Prime Minister is always trying to ''internationalise'' problems.
Addressing reporters near Rockhampton on Thursday, Mr Abbott said that Mr Rudd was making excuses about the asylum seeker issue.
Customs officials and rescue personnel watch over survivors of the capsized boat at Christmas Island docks Photo: Sharon Tisdale
''I say to Mr Rudd: stop making excuses, stop trying to say this is the world's problem, it's not. It's our problem and we need to take the appropriate action in this country, by this country, for this country to stop the boats and we need to do it now,'' Mr Abbott said.
This followed comments from Mr Rudd on Wednesday, where he flagged for the first time a review of Australia's obligations under the United Nations Refugee Convention, as part of a new policy aimed at stemming the flow of asylum seeker boats.
The Prime Minister signalled the review as part of a three-pronged policy shift to address the issue globally, promote regional co-operation and tighten the refugee assessment process in Australia.
Immigration Minister Tony Burke on Thursday hit back at Mr Abbott's assertion that boat arrivals were Australia's problem, not the world's.
''Mr Abbott is perhaps the first person in the world to not believe refugees are an international issue,'' he told Fairfax Media.
''By the very definition, refuges and asylum seekers are an international issue. We have a significant problem in our region and we need a comprehensive regional approach to deal with it.''
Last month a UN report said that there were more refugees or internally displaced people than at any other time since 1994.
The annual Global Trends report found that as of the end of 2012, more than 45.2 million people were in situations of displacement compared to 42.5 million at the end of 2011.
War remained the major cause for displacement, with 55 per cent of all refugees in the report coming from Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan.
The Coalition has previously called for a rethink on the Refugee Convention, saying its operations and protections have become confused in the past 60 years.
Mr Abbott said that the difficulty with the convention was the way it had been imported into Australian law, but did not suggest it had to be updated.
''It's the things that we do here in Australia as Australians that matter. We should get cracking on doing what we need to in this country and on our orders to fix this problem. Not raise yet another red herring: which is Mr Rudd leading some kind of an international crusade to change an international rule,'' he said.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison also dismissed Mr Rudd's remarks saying: "Kevin Rudd is always talking and raising expectations about what he might do on border protection, but his record shows he does very little.''
But Mr Morrison said he had ''strong reservations'' about the interpretation of the convention and its impact on domestic policies.
He stopped short of confirming that a Coalition government would remain a signatory to the convention. However, he hinted the Coalition would remove the appeals process to the refugee tribunal, as it did under the Howard government.
''That is obviously an outcome that if it can legally be implemented once again, that we would look kindly upon,'' Mr Morrison told ABC radio.
No explanation of what Mr Rudd had in mind when he made his comments yesterday has been forthcoming from his office, although possible areas of focus are Australia's obligations to those who pass through countries where they could lodge refugee claims, and whether permanent residency should be afforded in the first instance.
Mr Rudd's comments could also presage a diplomatic push by Australia for the international community to review and reform the treaty, which came into being in 1951.
Former foreign minister Gareth Evans, who is president emeritus of the International Crisis Group, said it was sensible to revisit the convention.
''I think it's perfectly sensible to open up an international conversation about the scope of the convention,'' he told ABC 24 on Thursday.
Professor Evans expressed doubts that Australia would walk away completely from the obligations of the convention.
''But at the same time we have to recognise there have been concerns about the applicability of the convention to the circumstances of the 21st century compared to the post World War II years,'' he said.
Professor Evans pointed to definition problems in the convention such as the requirement that refugees be fleeing persecution.
''That doesn't on the face of it extend to those like Syrians at the moment, who are mostly fleeing from the risk of death by crossfire in a civil war,'' he said. ''There's no burden sharing obligation on countries.''
Professor Evans said there were also problems with the different treatment of refugees in camps and those who were able to get to convention signatory countries.
Greens leader Christine Milne and refugee lawyer David Manne have expressed alarm at any softening in Australia's support of the convention, with Mr Manne describing it as the ''bedrock'' of the nation's commitment to those fleeing persecution.
Australia was one of the first countries to sign the 1951 convention, the document that defines who is a refugee and the obligations of signature countries.
With Michael Gordon, AAP