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New asylum policy puts women at greater risk of violence

The agreement to settle refugees in Papua New Guinea overlooks the high rates of violence against women and girls in the country. DAN PELED/AAP

The Labor government’s changes to immigration policy show a singular focus on stopping people seeking asylum in Australia and destroying the business of people smugglers. But unhappy prospects await the women and children who have fled conflict zones to seek asylum in Australia and find themselves in Papua New Guinea.

The allegations of widespread sexual abuse within the Manus Island detention centre make the government’s plan to send all new asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia to Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement even more alarming.

It now seems that the plan will not only undermine Australia’s international commitments to uphold human rights and protect civilians in conflict-affected countries, it will also betray our pledge to prevent sexual and gender-based violence perpetrated largely against women and girls, but boys and young men as well.

It may also compromise Australia’s aid programs to Papua New Guinea, which aim to eliminate violence against women and girls.

Pervasive violence

It doesn’t really make sense for Australia to send women and children to Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement when it has, over the past three years, accepted asylum claims on the basis of gender persecution from dozens of Papua New Guinean women.

Essentially, the plan is to send refugees to a country where women and children experience extreme vulnerability to criminal wife beating, sexual violence and gang rape, and gender-based killings related to witchcraft or sorcery allegations.

These pervasive forms of violence were documented by Rashida Manjoo, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, in her March 2013 Papua New Guinea report.

That mission found that rape and sexual assault have reached epidemic levels in the Pacific nation but most cases remained unreported. It also cited a 2006 PNG Institute of Medical Research report describing gang rape as a common practice. According to the report, approximately 60% of interviewed men indicated they had participated in this form of violence against women.

In May 2012, Australia’s Refugee Review Tribunal justified its decision to provide protection to a woman from Papua New Guinea, stating that, women as a group are treated as “second class citizens in their own country”.

It added that women are vulnerable to violence because the Papua New Guinean state:

fails to provide the level of protection which its female citizens are entitled to expect according to international standards.

Australia’s obligations

In search for a solution to the complex political issue of forced migration and displacement in a world beset by conflict, the prime minister’s plan ignores Australia’s obligation to uphold women’s human rights.

It will compound the particular vulnerabilities of women and children who seek refuge here. And it may further increase the risks of violence and marginalisation for Papua New Guinea’s women and girls.

Women and girls’ vulnerability to violence is exacerbated in displacement as they become targets for forced marriage, rape, trafficking and sexual slavery. Their security and health needs are routinely neglected in camps and detention centres.

On her April 2012 study tour of Australia, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women stressed that refugee women who had been exposed to violence were often reluctant to seek assistance from the police.

Some spoke of the racism they had faced from Australian authorities as a disincentive to seeking help. Others described a general fear and distrust of authority figures because of negative experiences in their home country.

Women and children experience extreme vulnerability to criminal wife beating, sexual violence and gang rape, and gender-based killings related to witchcraft or sorcery allegations in PNG. AAP

Under the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and other human rights treaties, both Australia and Papua New Guinea have a responsibility to protect women from sexual and gender-based violence. And to prevent these forms of violence occurring during the transit and processing of refugee claimants.

Legal redress

Women asylum seekers who experience sexual or gender-based violence during processing in Papua New Guinea have the right to seek legal redress under the Migration Act.

If Australia is recalcitrant, they have recourse as individuals or through a group to begin complaint procedures with the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). They could also seek redress under CEDAW.

Non-governmental organisations can also submit reports on behalf of individuals experiencing human rights violations to the UNHRC’s Universal Periodic Review of Australia’s human rights compliance.

These international avenues of redress would recommend immediate remedial actions by the Australian government to uphold the human rights of the woman complainants and those in similar situations in the future.

Local women

Apart from the dangers the Rudd government policy may pose to the groups who seek asylum on our shores, we need also to recognise the damage that this model may do to Papua New Guinea’s women and girls.

A substantial part of the $507 million in Australian aid committed to Papua New Guinea in 2013-14 is intended to reduce violence against women by improving policing and judicial responses to sexual and gender-based crimes. And by promoting women’s political and economic empowerment.

We have no assurance that these funding commitments will be safeguarded in the wake of the new policy.

The 2012 decision to refocus on offshore processing of refugees in the Pacific saw AUD$375 million diverted from Australia’s aid budget to re-open processing centres on Manus Island and in Nauru.

Concerns have also been raised inside Papua New Guinea about the potential for new detention facilities to create local tensions around land.

This will contribute to local women’s insecurity as research on the social impact of mineral resource extraction ventures in Papua New Guinea has shown. This work indicates that women are easily caught up in the conflicts that can arise over land ownership.

It’s not difficult to imagine how new population pressures, arising from the diversion of refugees, will make the lives of women in Papua New Guinea, a country ranked 134th out of 148 for gender equity, even harder.

Neglecting the vulnerable

The Papua New Guinea media has branded this policy Ruddiculous. But it is also dangerous.

Little thought has been given to how it will impact women and children fleeing sexual violence and persecution in the world’s conflict zones. Or to its impact on women in Papua New Guinea who already live with the burden of violence, insecurity and a culture of impunity.

Kevin Rudd has proposed a self-interested plan that damages to Australia’s regional and international standing. It threatens to make a bad situation much worse for women and children already in desperate circumstances.

The tone of the domestic response suggests it will not contribute greatly to the Rudd government’s survival either.

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