(AA) – Australia is to seek to return failed asylum seekers to Iran, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Saturday, raising fears for their safety among refugee groups.
“We have some 30,000 people who arrived illegally by boat, some of them will be found to be refugees, some of them won’t and it’s important that those that are found not to be refugees go home,” Abbott said.
“We’ll be talking to the Iranian government about taking back people who are Iranian citizens because they deserve to be in Iran. They belong in Iran if they’re found not to be refugees.”
Deporting Iranian asylum seekers could take the pressure off Australian off-shore immigration detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Iranians make up about 20 percent of the 1,848 people held in Australian detention centers, according to Immigration Department figures from late March, and account for many of the 1,707 held on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
To date, Iran has been unwilling to accept thousands of Iranian nationals who arrived in Australia by boat and have been denied refugee status.
However, local media reported that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will raise the issue of deportation and lobby Iran to accept nationals when she visits Tehran next week.
A diplomatic source told Fairfax Media that the question of returning failed asylum seekers had been an ongoing discussion between Bishop and her Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif.
“One of the biggest challenges that we are facing with failed asylum seekers is those refusing to return home,” the source said.
Refugee Rights Action Network spokeswoman Victoria Martin told The Anadolu Agency that she was disturbed by the potential trade off.
“There have been efforts being made to establish a memorandum of understanding,” she said. “It remains to be seen what Australia will offer Iran in return for Iran signing such an agreement around forced returns.”
Martin expressed concern that Australia may be willing to “soften our stance on Iran’s acquisition of nuclear material or make concessions in the UN Security Council.”
Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul pointed to the fact that “twice this year, hunger-striking Iranian asylum seekers have come close to dying in detention.”
In February, 15 Iranian asylum seekers on indefinite detention in Darwin’s Wickham Point center refused food for 19 days. One hunger striker lasted for 53 days.
Earlier this month, 25-year-old Iranian asylum seeker Saeed Hassanloo went on a hunger strike in Perth for 44 days when the government refused him refugee status.
“It’s a pity Julie Bishop is not going to get guarantees of human rights inside Iran,” Rintoul told AA. “There are flaws in the refugee determination process here, which means many of the people the government is seeking to return have legitimate fears of persecution.”
Human rights lawyer David Manne, of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Center, stressed the need “for any person seeking protection from persecution to have their claims rigorously assessed under due legal process.”
He noted that “Iran is notorious for severely and systematically inflicting human rights abuses on many of its citizens.”
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said returning asylum seekers to Iran would “put the lives of men, women and children at higher risk.”