Australia to release 100 asylum seekers a month; The Australian government is to relax its controversial policy of keeping refugees who arrive by boat locked up while their asylum claims are processed, it has been announced
Publisher: The Telegraph, UK
Author: By Leah Hyslop
Story date: 29/11/2011
Language: English

Until now, asylum seekers who attempted to enter Australia by boat have been kept in high-security detention facilities until their claims for refugee status are processed.

Now, at least 100 immigrants every month will be permitted to live and work in the community until their status is resolved, with priority given to those who have been in detention the longest.

In a statement, immigration minister Chris Bowen said that 27 single men, from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, have already been issued "bridging visas", and that precautions had been taken to ensure that they were suitable for release.

"These men have gone through an assessment process prior to their selection, including identity, security and behaviour checks. They will live in the community on bridging visas while their asylum claims are completed and their status is resolved," he said.

"People released into the community on bridging visas will have reporting conditions and anyone found breaching these conditions risk having their visas cancelled and being returned to immigration detention."

Amnesty International's refugee spokesman, Dr. Graham Thom, welcomed the development.

"This welcome move to community processing, where bridging visas will be used as claims are assessed, will finally put Australia in step with all other Western countries.The system of indefinite mandatory detention is discriminatory and brings further suffering to people who had fled unimaginable circumstances," he said.

He added, however, that legislation should be introduced to "back... up" the change. "We need an assurance from the Australian government that people who have fled persecution and violence, if detained, will only be held in detention for the absolute minimum necessary time to undertake basic checks," he said.

Scott Morrison, the shadow minister for Immigration and Citizenship, was among those who criticised the step, saying that the government had "set back the clock on border protection" and was simply "opening up a sea lane for people smugglers".

The mandatory detention of those who enter the country without a valid visa has long been one of Australia's more controversial policies.

The new move follows the failure of a plan to "swap" asylum seekers arriving in Australia for registered refugees awaiting resettlement from camps in Malaysia. Julia Gillard's government struck the deal in the hope of relieving pressure on the detention system, which currently holds nearly 4,000 individuals in centres across the country, but it was rejected as unlawful by Australia's High Court at the end of August.

The step also marks the start of a unification of visa processes for boat and air arrivals, the latter of whom are often already given bridging visas.
 

Clinton heads to a hopeful Burma
Publisher: the Washington Post, USA
Author: By William Wan,
Story date: 29/11/2011
Language: English

PUSAN, South Korea — When Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives in Burma on Wednesday — the first U.S. secretary of state to do so in half a century — she will enter a country vacillating between pessimism and hope.

Its authoritarian government is talking loudly of reform. Its opposition leaders are desperate for change but deeply suspicious of the government's overtures. Meanwhile, its ethnic minorities, who have suffered killings and rape by the Burmese military, are split between fighting back and pursuing another cease-fire when past ones have failed.

Confrontation or negotiation? Working with or against the government? These are questions that the people of Burma have faced for decades, and ones Clinton will face as she flies from an international aid conference in South Korea to Burma's capital, Naypyidaw. But the most pressing question of all is this: Just how serious is Burma's government about reform?

There have been promises before, seeming breakthroughs that devolved into crackdowns on democratic and opposition groups. But even those harboring suspicion say some things feel different this time.

In recent months, the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein — who, like many members of the leadership, is a former military officer — has released some political prisoners, allowed greater media freedom and outlined an agenda of political and economic opening.

Lending weight to his actions, Aung San Suu Kyi — the charismatic leader of Burma's long-persecuted democracy movement — has held serious discussions with the government, calling the president's efforts sincere and supporting Clinton's historic visit.

"People are beginning to feel a little bit hopeful," said Myint Kyaw, 46, a longtime journalist in Rangoon. "They want to believe in it."

China's influence

No one knows with certainty what prompted the sudden and surprising moves toward reform.

One leading theory is that the government aims to throw off the yoke of China's influence. For decades, China has been Burma's closest ally — sending massive investment across its border as Burma has suffered under sanctions and lending diplomatic shelter in the face of international condemnation.

But that friendship came at a heavy price as China plundered Burma's natural resources to fuel its own booming economy. Whole swaths of Burma's forest have been razed for China, and rivers dammed to provide hydroelectricity. And Burma, along with neighboring states, has warily watched China display its increasing military power.

The wariness comes just as the Obama administration is pivoting its focus from the Middle East toward counterbalancing China's rising power. Burma's leadership seems eager to capitalize on that shift, apparently trying to play the superpowers against each other like two suitors competing for its hand.

"We have to look at which of the countries give us more benefits, which ones are trying to build a better relationship," Nay Zin Latt, an adviser to Thein Sein, said in a phone interview. "But there is an expectation with a relationship of foreign investment, technology, development."

What the government wants most, however, is a lifting of international sanctions, which — along with corruption and lagging development — have devastated the economy of Burma, also known as Myanmar.

U.S. officials have insisted that a lifting of sanctions is far in the future, noting that such a move would require much greater reform and, for some sanctions, congressional approval. But Nay Zin Latt said many in Burma's government believe they are just months away from wresting that promise from the United States.

"They have said that if we take one step, they will move forward one step," he said. "The changes are now happening so fast. I would say by the first quarter of next year we should start seeing the lifting of the smaller sanctions."

Worries about reform

Some of the more cynical activists in Burma, however, see more sinister reasons for the reforms. Some within the opposition movement, for example, have quietly questioned Suu Kyi's decision to end her long boycott of the political system and register her National League for Democracy party in elections next year — a move they say could lend still-unearned legitimacy to the government.

Many recall her party's decisive victory in the 1990 general election, which prompted the ruling military junta to bar the party from power and keep her under house arrest for most of the next two decades.

"The worry among some is that the government is trying to contain Aung San Suu Kyi and weaken her power by convincing her to come back into the political system. But once she is in, U Thein Sein may stop cooperation with her, and everything might turn back to square one," said Aung Din, a former student activist and founder of the U.S. Campaign for Burma.

"It's become a gamble for everyone involved," said Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch. "You now have three people staking their credibility on continued progress — Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi and Clinton. But that's probably a good thing. The more each side has to lose, the higher possibility this may actually lead to progress."

Two biggest demands

But the real test of reform is still to come.

The government has yet to address the opposition's two biggest demands: the release of all political prisoners and an end to its brutal war against ethnic minorities in outlying regions.

Since October, Burma has released 200 political prisoners, but activists say that as many as 1,600remain imprisoned, including some of the most prominent opposition leaders.

Nay Zin Latt blamed the decision not to release more on a recent peaceful protest by monks in Mandalay. "Only if the president believes there is stability, then he will release the rest of the political prisoners," he said.

Similarly, he dismissed criticism of the military's long-running violence against ethnic minorities.

"I would say that no hand is clean. Our soldiers have been killed, too," the presidential adviser said, calling accusations that scores of women have been raped "an exaggeration."

Such assertions have infuriated human rights activists, who have documented 81 cases of rape since March, including a woman nine months' pregnant and a 12-year-old schoolgirl, in front of her mother.

Rape, women's advocates say, is being used as a weapon of war to control villages opposing Naypyidaw's government.

"It is widespread, systematic and clearly supported by the government, since no one is punished. It is even carried out by high-ranking military officers in front of their soldiers," said Charm Tong of the Shan Women's Action Network.

Her group, which runs safe houses and offers counseling for women along the Burma-Thailand border, has seen women whose sexual organs were purportedly burned by soldiers and has found cases in which women are used by soldiers for forced labor by day and kept as sex slaves at night — issues that the network and other activists plan to bring up with Clinton during her visit.

Of the reforms, Charm Tong said: "Yes, some things are changing in some areas, but for us, it doesn't matter what the regime says or does to please the international community. As long as atrocities like this continue, it is proving to be the same government it has always been."
 

Helping North Koreans adapt to the outside world
Publisher: AFP, Agence France Presse
Author: Nam You-Sun
Story date: 29/11/2011
Language: English

From an office in Seoul's glitzy financial district, eight counsellors on the end of a phone line try to help refugees from North Korea make sense of a bewildering new world.

The call centre run by the North Korean Refugees Foundation opened in May on an experimental basis and now gets an average 1,120 calls a month – a sign of the problems that refugees face adjusting to the competitive capitalist South.

For decades after the 1950-53 Korean War, the South saw just a trickle of arrivals from its impoverished hardline socialist neighbour. In recent years, there has been a steady stream.

Of the 23,700 to arrive since 1953, some 10,000 came in the past four years.

All new arrivals must spend three months in the Hanawon government resettlement centre, where they get job training and learn basic survival skills – such as how to buy a subway ticket or use a credit card.

They also get financial and housing support upon leaving.

"They get education at Hanawon for three months, but many times that's not enough because the system is so different in the South," said Ma Soon-Hee, who herself fled the North.

"Adjusting to the capitalist system is the most difficult. Defectors often have a hard time understanding that they have to work hard to earn more, and that people get different levels of salaries."

Some people who left family in the North sometimes say they think of going back because they feel lonely and find it hard to make a living in the South, she told AFP.

"Life can be hard for people who were allotted food, work and money for their entire lives in the North... the freedom they get after coming here can be tarnished by harsh reality," Ma said.

The centre operates round the clock every day of the year.

Many callers seek aid with employment, housing and resettlement funds because they find regulations too complicated. Counsellors field calls on what kind of government aid exists and whether the caller qualifies to receive it.

There are some odder requests.

One woman asked where she could buy cabbages and other ingredients to make kimchi, Korea's national dish.

Another asked about her marital status. She has family in North Korea but fled by herself, and wondered whether she would be considered single in the South.

Almost all refugees cross the border into China but face repatriation if discovered there. Those seeking to come to South Korea must first travel on to Southeast Asian nations.

Ma was once contacted by two North Korean sisters in Thailand, who asked her to phone a Korean consulate so they could stay there pending a flight. She was able to help and the sisters later arrived in the South.

Four of the counsellors were born in South Korea and four are former refugees. They are paired to work together.

Ma, now 61, fled the North in 1998 and spent five years in China before coming to the South in 2003.

"When I first came here, there was no such thing as education. We were turned loose into society immediately and I was confused at first," she said.

"Now they have a much better system and the situation is definitely improving, but I still feel the need for people to get support."

A July report from the International Crisis Group think-tank starkly spelt out the problems, saying almost refugees fail to integrate or thrive.

New arrivals on average were significantly smaller, worse educated, less healthy and less likely to have useful skills, but must adapt to a country where credentials and networks are essential to find jobs.

Coming from a country where an all-powerful bureaucracy makes almost all life decisions, they "describe a bewildering rush of modernity, consumption and choice that rapidly overwhelms them", the report said.

It called for a new approach by Seoul's government including tough laws to prevent discrimination.

"The difficulties of handling just over 20,000 refugees over a few decades should be a warning to those who wish to encourage the collapse of the North rather than a more gentle integration," the report said.
 

Refugees Daily
Refugees Global Press Review
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For UNHCR Internal Distribution