A Parliamentary Committee in Canberra has heard that the numbers of Fijians challenging rejections by Australia's Immigration Department remains high, though not as high as a spike of 312-per cent during 2009-10.
Only a small percentage of Fijians who apply are granted protection by Canberra, with competing views about whether Australia is doing all it can for Fijians living under such tight constraints.
From Canberra, Linda Mottram reports.
Presenter: Linda Mottram
Denis O'Brien, Australia's Migration and Refugee Review Tribunals; Garry Fleming, Australia's Department of Immigration and Citizenship; Usaia Waqatairewa, Fiji Democracy Movement.
MOTTRAM: Late last year Australian officials dealing with reviews of refugee cases revealed a spike in the number of Fijians seeking refugee status was responsible for a backlog in processing refugee review claims. Since then, the annual performance report of Australia's Migration and Refugee Review Tribunals has been released, underlining how great the spike was. Denis O'Brien, a senior member of the Migration and Refugee Review Tribunals, has given evidence to a Senate committee in Canberra.
O'BRIEN: We reported last year an increase of 312 per cent in our Fiji applications.
MOTTRAM: The report of the tribunals says that in financial year 2008-09, 59 Fijians sought a review of a decision to reject their refugee application. In 2009-10, there were 243 such reviews requested. Of those 127 cases were sent back to be reconsidered .. only a slightly higher rate than in previous years but more than double the actual number of cases, set aside, to use the bureaucratic term.
That was 2009-10. What of the year 2010-11 so far? Denis O'Brien again.
O'BRIEN: We're not running at anywhere near that level at the moment, although on our current states, its still running second to China in terms of lodgements. Eleven per cent of our lodgements, as at the 31st of January, 11 per cent were from Fiji, 29 per cent as I think I mentioned earlier from China and then other countries below that.
MOTTRAM: The picture becomes clearer by looking at some different figures. In 2009-10, 559 Fjians in Australia sought protection visas. Garry Fleming from the Immigration Department told the committee about the high rejection rate.
FLEMING: The 2009-10 approval rate was 16 per cent. And for 2010-11, again to 31 December 2010 it was 17 per cent.
MOTTRAM: In fact the Immigration department says in 2009-10, only 38 Fijians were granted protection after all appeal options were exhausted, a much lower approval rate than that. Either way, many rejections, means many appeals. But its making little difference it seems to the numbers permitted to stay in Australia as refugees.
Usaia Waqatairewa who runs the Fiji Democracy Movement in Australia has complained before that the real conditions of Fijians under the military rule of coup leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama are not being acted on by Australia. Those conditions include economic malaise, but also heavy political constraint and a lack of freedom of expression as well as the threat of violence. Usaia Waqatairewa makes the same complaint about Australia's attitude now and says he has cases coming to him regularly that underline the situation.
WAQATAIREWA: They are even willing to pull aside Australian citizens of Fijian origin that they thought that said something bad in Australia, going back to Fiji for holiday and beating them up and I've just got a sworn statement from an individual who's a member of my movement who experienced that terrible experience while going to Fiji for Christmas holidays.
MOTTRAM: He also says Australia rejected a refugee application from a Fijian soldier who was a witness to the army mutiny led by jailed rebel George Speight in 2000. The soldier had been serving on peacekeeping duties for Fiji in East Timor, when his commander sent him to Australia and told him to seek refugee status. Usaia Waqatairewa again.
WAQATAIREWA: If they have the nerve and the tenacity to beat up Australian citizens who go to Fiji for holidays, imagine Fijian nationals and especially former Fijian soldiers who have actually been saying things against the government and who was supposed to be key witnesses when there was a civilian government and a proper judicial system being deported back to Fiji. now there's a suppressed media and I haven't heard anything ever since this person got deported back to Fiji and I don't know whether he's alive or dead now.
MOTTRAM: Apart from the merits of such cases, others who see some of the Fijian refugee applications say they're often more about economic hardship than persecution making them ineligible under refugee criteria. In the hearings in Canberra, officials didn't discuss why so many Fijians might be seeking asylum in Australia. Nor was the Fiji High Commission in Canberra available to discuss the issue, though a request is still pending.