Australia’s recent national elections, which returned the conservative Liberal-National party coalition to power by the slimmest of margins, will not alter the country’s harsh asylum seeker policies. They are likely to entrench the government’s position against longstanding calls for immigration policy reform. But it is equally important to note that policies such as mandatory detention of children have enjoyed bipartisan support for a while now.
A Turning Point for Policy
This dark chapter in Australia’s treatment of refugees can be traced back to August 26, 2001, in the lead-up to another national election, when Prime Minister John Howard refused the Norwegian cargo ship MV Tampa entry into Australian waters after it had rescued 438 mainly Afghan asylum seekers of Hazara ethnicity from a distressed Indonesian fishing boat.
Stating that they would never be allowed to set foot in Australia, Howard deployed Special Forces to board the Tampa. “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” he declared.
This infamous episode laid the foundation of the past 15 years of asylum policies rooted in xenophobia towards refugees and systemic barriers against future reform, especially mandatory detention of all asylum seekers, including minors.
Although mandatory detention laws stipulating that “unlawful non-citizens” must be detained until granted a visa or removed had already been introduced by the Labor government in 1992, the Tampa incident marked a turning point in Australian immigration policies. It catalyzed the Pacific Solution, which established Nauru as the first regional detention center in 2001, followed by Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, which was established by the Labor-led government in 2007.
Howard’s actions were criticized internationally, but received widespread public support in Australia, contributing to a landslide election victory for the conservative Liberal-National Party (LNP).
Prompted by Howard’s 2001 election-winning strategy, politicians began using rhetoric about protecting Australia’s borders from “illegal boat people” and “Muslim terrorists” to justify incarcerating asylum seekers outside Australian territory under a veil of secrecy. These highly fortified detention centers prohibit media and thereby public scrutiny.
Regardless of the government in power, Australia continues to follow a strict detention policy, where asylum seekers are detained without formal charges or a trial even after they are officially recognized as refugees.
Despite 94 percent of the asylum seekers processed in Australia and 80 percent processed offshore being granted refugee status since 2001, the LNP insists that the 1,500 refugees currently held on Manus and Nauru will never be resettled in Australia.
In recent years, the LNP government has justified the policy under the pretext of saving lives at sea and combating people smugglers. What makes this claim incredibly dubious is that the same government now stands accused of paying people-smugglers $30,000 to turn asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia.
Human Rights Violations
The costs of Australia’s deterrence policies have been inordinate.
While the government claims that offshore detention costs Australian taxpayers $750 million per year,
unofficial estimates are closer to $3.7 billion. Meanwhile, human rights advocates point to the immeasurable ethical consequences.
“The Australian Constitution does not protect human rights in any meaningful way,” says Julian Burnside, a commercial lawyer and human rights advocate who represents asylum seekers on a pro bono basis. “Cases are usually won on a technical point, and the government then patches up the legislation.”
This legal lapse in protection has created an increasing gulf between Australia’s national laws and its international obligations. Australia is in breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifically Article 14, the Refugee Convention, which grants every human the right to seek asylum in any country, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Ironically, the country played a significant role in formulating the declaration.
“For Australia to ignore the agreements it freely signed up [to] shows a stunning hypocrisy” says Burnside.
Detention of MinorsAs the only country in the world that mandates closed and indefinite detention of asylum seeker children, Australia’s offshore detention regime was recently categorized as an “atrocity” by trauma expert Paul Stevenson.
In 2014, the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention: The Forgotten Children, concluded that the numerous reported incidents of violence, sexual assault and self harm involving children in detention centers proved beyond doubt that it constitutes a dangerous environment for minors.
The Inquiry found that “726 children had been detained for more than 14 months and 34 percent of those formally assessed had mental health problems deemed moderate to extremely severe, compared to an estimated 2 percent in the general population. In a 14-month period, the Department of Immigration recorded 128 cases of actual self-harm among children in closed immigration facilities.“
Pediatricians Elizabeth Elliott and Hasantha Gunasekera who led a medical team in a follow-up visit to a mainland detention centre in February 2016, said: “These children, most of whom had spent months in Nauru, are among the most traumatized we have ever seen in our 50 years of combined professional experience.”
“The overarching finding of the Inquiry is that the prolonged, mandatory detention of asylum-seeker children causes them significant mental and physical illness and developmental delays, in breach of Australia’s international obligations,” the report concluded.
There have been recent signs that Australia’s refugee policy is unsustainable. The High Court of Papua New Guinea recently ruled Manus island detention center illegal and recommended it be shut down. Some human rights advocates are also seeing a positive shift occurring in public opinion with an expanding Australian movement for refugee rights. While Burnside considers that attitudes on asylum seekers are hardening, he also points out that Australians would not support the policy if they had not been misled into believing that arriving by boat to seek asylum in Australia is illegal.
Either way, it remains a highly politicized and polarizing issue.
Presently, Australia‘s refugee intake, ranked 67th overall in the world, is woefully inadequate for such a wealthy country, and hypocritical considering that, apart from its indigenous peoples, it is a nation built on immigration.
My own family history attests to this foundation. All four of my grandparents arrived in Australia by boat from Greece – one was an unaccompanied child refugee, while the other three were immigrants. Their experiences are amongst millions of similar stories woven into the fabric of Australia’s diverse multicultural society.
Australia has both a legal and ethical responsibility to implement an immigration policy that treats asylum seekers and refugees in accordance with international laws. The system of prolonged mandatory detention – which is inflicting horrific cruelty and suffering on to innocent people – must be dismantled. As an advanced democracy with one of the strongest mixed market economies in the world,
Australia has the social and institutional framework and labor market space to absorb new migration and welcome, not criminalize, refugees.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Refugees Deeply.