The decision-making process for people who seek asylum in Australia is rigorous. Asylum seekers are required to detail their claims for protection. They are then interviewed by a Departmental officer who will assesses their claims, applying the following definition of a refugee: a person who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…".
During the interview the asylum seeker is asked questions about what has happened to them in the past, and why they believe that it is not safe for them to return to their home country.
If the Departmental officer decides that the asylum seeker satisfies the definition of a refugee, the officer may advise the Minister to allow the asylum seeker to apply for a protection visa in Australia.
It is then up to the Minister to decide whether it is in the public interest to allow the asylum seeker to apply for a protection visa.
If the Departmental officer decides that the asylum seeker is not a refugee, the asylum seeker may apply for an independent review of his or her case. If the reviewer finds that the asylum seeker is a refugee, the same process is followed as where the Departmental officer decides that the asylum seeker is a refugee.
However if the reviewer agrees with the Departmental officer’s assessment, the asylum seeker will usually be required to return to their country of origin.
In April this year the decision-making process for Afghan asylum seekers was suspended by the Australian government. As the then Minister for Immigration, Senator Chris Evans said when announcing the suspension: “The decision has been made in the light of the changing circumstances in ... Afghanistan. Evolving country information from ... Afghanistan is likely to have a significant effect on the outcome of assessments as to whether asylum–seekers have a well-founded fear of persecution within the meaning of the Refugees Convention.”
On 30 September 2010, the (new) Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Bowen MP, announced the government was lifting the suspension of processing of asylum claims from Afghan asylum seekers. According to a report published in The Australian newspaper:
1. the Department has published a draft guidance note in relation to the situation in Afghanistan;
2. when preparing the guidance note, the Department looked at information from a number of sources in relation to Afghanistan, including the UNHCR, US State Department and DFAT;
3. in relation to ethnic Hazaras asylum seekers, who make up the overwhelming majority of Afghan asylum seekers, the guidance note raises doubts about whether simply being an ethnic Hazara or Shi’a Muslim means that the person will face a real chance of being persecuted in Afghanistan;
4. the report does acknowledges that where people, including ethnic Hazaras, have come to the particular attention of certain groups, such as the Taliban, or are particularly likely to come to the attention of those groups in the future, it may still be the case that those people should be recognised as refugees.
In a recent speech to the Australian Parliament, the Minister for Immigration stated: “...as a result of the more exhaustive country information there has been a decrease in the number of primary acceptances of claims from Afghans who are not subject to the processing pause. Even taking into consideration the possibility of some of these being overturned at review, the percentage of successful refugee claims is likely to be lower than in the past.”
However, Departmental officers are still required to examine all of the relevant available information relating to each individual application, and to arrive at their own conclusions about whether the applicant is a refugee.