Hundreds of Afghan asylum seekers could be returned to their homeland from Australia under a new deal with Kabul, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said on Tuesday.
The agreement signed by Bowen, Afghan Refugee Minister Jamaher Anwary and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on Monday allows Australia to make forced repatriations of those Afghans who fail to qualify as refugees.
Until now there has never been a forcible return of an Afghan asylum seeker and only three Afghans have returned to their homeland, all voluntarily, in the past three years despite thousands arriving as boatpeople.
Bowen said Australia would continue to warn people against making the perilous journey to Australia via people-smuggling operations.
“But now we have an extra thing to add to that by saying, ‘We can return you and will return you to Afghanistan if you’re not a genuine refugee’,” he told commercial radio.
Since 2008 some 4,300 Afghans have arrived in Australia by boat, mostly making their way via transit points in Asia, where they pay people smugglers for their passage to Australia, often on rickety fishing boats.
Bowen said while approval rates for refugee status for Afghans were very high until about a year ago, this figure had dropped significantly due to changed assessments of the war-ravaged country.
But 2,700 Afghans remain in Australian immigration detention.
Of these 723 have had their initial bid for refugee status rejected and 49 Afghans have had both their first and second applications turned down, Bowen said.
Following a recent High Court decision, asylum seekers can now also take their case to judicial appeal if they think the process unfair.
Bowen said the new agreement sent a message to those seeking asylum to think twice about undertaking the expensive and dangerous journey to Australia.
“If you’re not a genuine refugee, think twice, because you’ll spend about Aus$20,000 getting here, you’ll risk your life on the sea between Indonesia and Australia and then you’ll end up where you started,” he said.