Numerous human rights advocacy groups have backed a public statement issued by the Edmund Rice Centre (ERC) condemning Australia's Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Afghanistan in regards to asylum seekers.
The Melbourne-based advocacy centre, along with more than 80 high-profile institutional and individual endorsers, has expressed "grave concern" about the effects of the MoU, which was signed between the governments of Australia and Afghanistan and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees last month.
The MoU permits the involuntary repatriation from Australia of unsuccessful Afghan asylum seekers, including children and unaccompanied minors.
"Afghanistan is a country mired in decades of civil war and ethnic unrest that has resulted in thousands of deaths over 30 years," reads the statement.
"It is not safe. There are no indications that the violence and security threats are reducing."
Of particular concern to the ERC is the fact that many Afghan asylum seekers in Australia are members of the Hazara ethnic minority which, according to the ERC, has been subject to discrimination for decades.
"There is no reason to believe that the ethnic and sectarian factors, fuelling hostility against them, have dissipated," says the statement.
Rachael Ball, the director of policy and campaigns at the Human Rights Law Resource Centre (HRLRC), which endorsed the statement, told Lawyers Weekly the HRLRC decided to endorse the statement because of serious concerns about the continuing instability and insecurity in Afghanistan, and indications that the humanitarian situation is likely to worsen in the coming year.
"There are currently gaps in Australian law when it comes to our human rights obligations to protect people from returning to a country where they would face risk of torture and other serious human rights violations," she said.
"The Refugee Convention will protect some people, but not all people who face those risks."
And while the government has tabled complimentary protection laws in parliament - which would mean that compelling humanitarian needs and other non-reforma obligations would have to be considered before sending unsuccessful asylum seekers back into a potentially dangerous situation - Ball points out that those laws are still under review.
"The MoU refers to the government's complimentary protection obligations [in section 3(a)], but those obligations aren't currently entrenched in Australian law," she said.
"We've seen numerous examples of instances where, under the existing framework, people have been returned to face fear and persecution and, in some cases, death."
Other endorsers of the statement include Julian Burnside QC, the International Commission of Jurists Australia and the Refugee Council of Australia.
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