About the inquiry
The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade was asked to inquire into and report on the status of the human right to freedom of religion or belief on 29 November 2016.
The Committee was asked to examine the status of the freedom of religion or belief (as recognised in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) around the world, including in Australia. The Committee’s terms of reference invited submissions particularly on:
- The enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief globally, the nature and extent of violations and abuses of this right and the causes of those violations or abuses
- Action taken by governments, international organisations, national human rights institutions, and non-government organisations to protect the freedom of religion or belief, promote religious tolerance, and prevent violations or abuses of this right
- The relationship between the freedom of religion or belief and other human rights, and the implications of constraints on the freedom of religion or belief for the enjoyment of other universal human rights
- Australian efforts, including those of Federal, State and Territory governments and non-government organisations, to protect and promote the freedom of religion or belief in Australia and around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific region.
Submissions closed on 28 April 2017. The inquiry is still continuing.
The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA)’s submission focused on the status of that right in relation to refugee communities and people seeking asylum, both overseas and in Australia. We highlighted the importance of that right for refugee communities, and examined in particular two cases of the persecution of religious minorities: the Muslim Rohingya in our region and religious minorities in Pakistan based on the country’s blasphemy law.
Our submission also discussed the experience of freedom of religion or belief for refugee communities within Australia, including in detention facilities and in relation to wider public and policy debates.
Freedom of religion or belief as a driver of displacement
The persecution of people because of their religion or belief
The human right to freedom of religion or belief is particularly important for refugee communities, many of whom fled their countries of origin because of religious persecution and sectarian conflicts. Christians, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Yazidis, Baha’is, and followers of other religions are being targeted in different countries and forced to flee.
Since January 2000, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iran and Burma have been the five top countries of birth for refugees and humanitarian entrants resettled in Australia. It is not coincidence that these countries all have some of the worst records of freedom of religion in the world.
Religion and the Australian Refugee and Humanitarian Program
While the protection needs of refugees from all religious groups are compelling, including people being currently resettled to Australia, this increase raises doubts in the minds of some observers about whether there is a level of religious discrimination within Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program. RCOA has consistently supported a non-discriminatory policy that prioritises the most vulnerable, a position that is supported by most Australians.
A welcome aspect of the increased intake from the conflict in Syria and Iraq has been the protection of religious minorities. Almost 90 per cent of the 313 Yazidis granted permanent protection in Australia since 2000 have been granted visas in the past two years. Since January 2000, Australia has granted 6,045 permanent protection visas to Sabean Mandeans, 2,895 visas to Baha’is, 1,162 visas to Ahmadis, and 58 visas to the followers of the Druze faith.
These figures demonstrate Australia’s commitment to protect people’s right to freedom of religion or belief. However, RCOA believes we can and need to increase these efforts. The extent of the atrocities perpetrated against religious communities have forced millions to leave their countries. As one of the main resettlement countries in the world, Australia can and should do more. This is especially so in light of the significant proposed reduction of the US resettlement program, which is likely to disproportionately affect Muslim communities.
The situation of the Rohingya and Australia’s response
RCOA also encourages the Government to pay particular attention to other persecuted religious minorities, including most urgently the Rohingya.
Four per cent of the population of Myanmar (Burma) are Muslim and the Rohingya represent the largest percentage of the Muslim population. Most Rohingya live in Rakhine state, one of the poorest states in Myanmar with limited access to basic services.
As a Muslim minority, the Rohingya have suffered brutal oppression and official discrimination since the country’s current rulers took power in 1962. There are longstanding conflicts between the majority Buddhist and minority Rohingya Muslim population. In 1982, Burma’s Citizenship Law excluded the Rohingya from Burmese citizenship, making them stateless.
The Government forbids the use of the term ‘Rohingya’ and promotes the view that they have no right to be in Burma, despite historical evidence linking the Rohingya with the Arakan region as far back as the 8th century. UNHCR estimates the number of stateless Rohingya within Myanmar at over 900,000, but in 2013 Burma’s Minister for Immigration and Population said there were 1.33 million Rohingya in the country, 1.08 million of them in the Rakhine state and only 40,000 with citizenship.
The systemic discrimination and human rights violations have forced many of the Rohingya to leave Myanmar, largely for Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh, where few have legal status. More than half of all Rohingya people now live outside the country. UNHCR says there are over 30,000 registered Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh but another 300,000 to 500,000 living there without documents or status.
Blasphemy laws in Pakistan
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often used against religious minorities. They can be arrested without warrants, can be refused bail, and need to endure long and unfair trails which often last years. The mere fact of being charged for blasphemy is enough for many in the community to assume these people’s guilt and take the law into their own hands, often without facing any consequences.
According to various reports by media and human rights organisations, although no executions have been carried out, at least 17 people are on the death row for blasphemy, 19 people are serving life sentences and since the 1980s, at least 53 people have been killed in violent incidents because of accusations of blasphemy. While a large number of victims have been Muslim, a disproportionate number were from religious minorities, including Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus.
Even when people are cleared of blasphemy charges, they are vulnerable to community violence. Accusations of blasphemy have led to displacement of many who either relocated internally and lived in isolation or left the country. There are countless examples of large scale violence, often against the entire community living in an area because of blasphemy charges against one member of that community. Police, who at times witnessed the violence, rarely offers any protection to the victims. According to experts, the prescription of death penalty for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad has created an environment in which some people feel entitled to take the law in their own hands, even if the person has been cleared of the charges by the courts.
Freedom of religion and belief in Australia’s immigration detention facilities
The practice of religions in detention
According to the latest statistics provided by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), as of 31 January 2017, at least 35% of the detention population were people seeking asylum. Many of those seeking asylum in Australia are fleeing religious persecution and discrimination, for whom the right to practise their religion freely and without fear is obviously very significant. RCOA has heard, however, that this freedom to practise their religions has become increasingly restricted.
In many religions, collective acts of praying and worship are important. The security requirements of held detention often force people to pray alone without the opportunity to observe the religious practices with others.
Restrictions on religious practice
In the past two years, the opportunities to leave a detention facility have been increasingly restricted. In some facilities, there is no opportunity to visit a place of worship outside. In others, people may be offered the opportunity if they have lower risk ratings (although it is unclear how these risk ratings are determined). In practice, this means very few people in detention can visit places of worship outside of detention facilities.
Further, in the past year RCOA has heard of increasing challenges faced by visitors to detention, including religious service providers. This is the subject of current research by RCOA, key findings of which we reported on in December 2016, and which we will publish soon in full.
Protecting the freedom of religion and belief by refugee communities in Australia
Public debate about religion, refuge and racism
In the past few years, public debate about refugee communities and people seeking asylum has increasingly been linked to Islam, including extremist Islamic views and terrorism. This link has been repeatedly made in the media and increasingly by politicians, including most prominently by One Nation and members of the Australian government. Increasingly, religion, refuge and racism are intertwined issues for refugee communities in Australia.
Reaffirming our commitment to freedom of religion
These developments occur within a wider policy context and public debate that is undermining the ability of refugee communities to settle in Australia. We have repeatedly highlighted the counterproductive impact of increasingly hostile policies and language targeting refugees and people seeking asylum, on communities within Australia. The recent protracted debate about changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, as well as proposed changes to citizenship and settlement policies, reinforce concerns among refugee communities about the strength of Australia’s commitment to freedom of religion within Australia.
The Australian Government should publicly affirm its commitment to using Refugee and Humanitarian Program to resettle the most vulnerable, without discrimination on the basis of religion.
The Australian Government should increase the number of places available under the Refugee and Humanitarian Program to provide protection to more people fleeing religious persecution.
The Australian Government should urgently address the persecution of the Rohingya, including by:
- using diplomacy, its aid program and its role in regional forums to pressure the Burmese government to act to end the persecution of the Rohingya and to improve human rights protection within Burma, including through independent human rights monitoring,
- engage constructively in dialogue with our neighbours and with UNHCR to improve the conditions of Rohingya forced to flee, and
- significantly increase the resettlement places offered to the Rohingya people in its 2017-2018 Refugee and Humanitarian Program.
The Australian Government should:
- use diplomacy to urge the Pakistan government to repeal the blasphemy laws and release those who are deprived of freedom because of exercising their faith, and
- increase the resettlement places offered to the Ahmadi people and religious minorities from Pakistan in its 2017-2018 Refugee and Humanitarian Program.
The Australian Government should ensure the free practice of religion in immigration detention, including through the provision of dedicated prayer rooms, appropriate arrangements for religious excursions, and through facilitating and supporting visits by religious service providers.
The Australian Government should consider expanding legislative protections against discrimination and vilification on the basis of religion.
This inquiry should adopt the recommendations of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia to ensure the protection and promotion of freedom of religion within Australia.
The Australian Government should publicly reject the political discourse that demonises refugees and people seeking asylum, including because of their religion.