Airport officials without relevant expertise are making life-or-death decisions about people seeking asylum in Australia, according to a policy brief released today from UNSW’s Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law that recommends reform. 

Travellers who claim refugee status at Australian airports can be turned away and sent back to countries where they may be at risk of serious harm, after being interviewed behind closed doors and without access to lawyers, says the policy brief written by Regina Jefferies (Kaldor Centre), Daniel Ghezelbash (Macquarie Law School), and Asher Hirsch (Refugee Council of Australia/Monash University).

This extraordinary entry-screening process has resulted in refugees being hand-cuffed and detained, simply for raising a protection claim in the airport. Even worse, some have been immediately returned to the country where they fear harm, without a robust assessment of their claim or access to any review of the decision.

The Kaldor Centre policy brief, ‘Assessing Protection Claims at Airports: Developing procedures to meet international and domestic obligations’, steps through Australia’s current approach, which prioritises visa cancellation, mandatory detention and removal, rather than protection needs. The authors outline reforms necessary to bring Australia’s policies in line with principles of procedural fairness and international refugee and human rights law protections.

‘The COVID-19 pandemic, by bringing international travel pretty much to a halt, presents the perfect moment to fix this,’ says Jefferies, a lawyer and UNSW Scientia PhD Scholar at the Kaldor Centre. 

‘With air travel set to be transformed, these procedures can also be reformed so that people are not sent back to harm, or otherwise only able to access temporary protection, simply because they did not leave the bounds of the airport before making a claim for protection.’

Under the current policy, travellers with a valid visa to enter Australia as a tourist, student, or worker routinely have those visas cancelled if it becomes apparent at the airport that they might seek protection. Once the visa is cancelled, they are in a precarious position, subject to removal or detention – and only at that late stage does a government official decide whether they are allowed to lodge a claim or not. A visitor who experienced this process first-hand tells his story in a short video released with the policy brief.

The authors recommend that visas should not be cancelled because a protection claim is raised at an Australian airport, that protection claims should always be evaluated, and that detention should only ever be used as a last resort and where individual circumstances demand it. Screening procedures should be set out in legislation, the authors say, with safeguards such as requiring that rejections be reviewable by independent decision-makers before an asylum seeker is removed from Australia

Watch the 5-minute video, ‘Australia’s airport asylum process explained’. 

Read the full policy brief, 'Assessing Protection Claims at Airports: Developing procedures to meet international and domestic obligations’.