By Henry O’Connell

Given that Australia is a country with the fifth lowest population density in the world and whose own history was based on the idea of (forced) immigration, one could be forgiven for assuming that it would have no qualms about accepting a few more people onto its shores. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, immigration has become one of the most polarising political issues over the past decades. Chief among the concerns raised is the influx of asylum seekers arriving by boat, or “boat people” as they are notoriously and distastefully known to the Australian public. Events in recent weeks with such asylum seekers have again thrust the issue into the spotlight and raised a growing number of questions regarding the viability of the Australian government’s approach.

Starting off as a British penal colony, Australia’s immigration policy has a long and checkered past dealing with various waves of migrants. These migrants have come from diverse backgrounds, from the influx of Greeks and Italians fleeing a devastated continental Europe in the late 1940s and 50s, to Vietnamese refugees escaping the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s. Sri Lankans, Afghans, Iranians and Iraqis, amongst others, make up the latest wave of asylum seekers, looking to avoid a smorgasbord of domestic conflicts and persecution. The Australian government’s response to these inflows of refugees has evolved over the ages to try to face the challenges of accepting and integrating such a heterogeneous mix of people. This response reached a nadir with the “White Australia Policy” from the early 1900s to the mid-1970s, where immigration to Australia was effectively restricted to those of white European descent. While this policy is thankfully in the past, the current approach carries its own set of detractors.

Since the 1992 Labour Government of Paul Keating, the policy has been to mandatorily and indefinitely detain people arriving to Australia without a valid visa. Subsequent governments, both on the left and right, have adapted this policy but broadly kept the principle intact. Both onshore detention centres on the Australian mainland and on Australian territories such as Christmas Island, as well as offshore processing facilities in countries such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea have been used to confine “illegal” asylum seekers. Offshore processing centres have been a particularly polarising element within this immigration policy, with successive governments implementing, rescinding and re-implementing offshore processing. These policies were primarily implemented in response to an increasing number of asylum seekers arriving by boat, from 161 in 2008 to a peak of 20,587 in 2013 according to Department of Immigration (DOI) statistics. This sharp increase has prompted a hardline response to asylum seekers, particularly to those arriving by boat. Despite having originally repealed offshore processing in 2008, the Labour government chose to reinstate it following the significant arrivals in 2013. It was then expanded further under the current Liberal government. Boats carrying asylum seekers are now being turned back, while existing asylum seekers are held in detention centres in Papua New Guinea, Nauru or on Christmas Island. Detainees in these centres cannot be resettled in Australia even if their claims are found to be legitimate and are instead offered resettlement in the countries in which they are respectively held.  

Ostensibly, this refugee policy acts as a deterrent against people smugglers and reduces deaths at sea. Boat arrivals have undeniably decreased following the implementation of the government’s immigration policy, with the DOI reporting only 1 boat arrival in 2015 compared to 100 in 2014. However, the highly politicised nature of the issue has bred a degree of cynicism regarding its motivations, with many viewing it as another example of political expediency trumping a sense of humanity. In practice, offshore detention has received widespread criticism. The Australian Council of Human Rights Authorities, reporting to the UN Human Rights Council heavily criticised Australia’s handling of its offshore asylum seekers in 2015 in response to extensive reports of abuse, while Amnesty International has denounced the facilities’ prison-like conditions. Some of the most ardent criticism has been levelled at Australia’s policy of keeping children and women in detention. In 2015, both a senate inquiry and the independent Moss Report found evidence of heightened levels of mental distress and sexual abuse amongst women and children held in offshore centres. Meanwhile, health professionals have been critical of the Australian government’s response to addressing health concerns at the facilities. Federal legislation passed in 2015 banning medical workers from speaking out about conditions at the offshore centres has further alienated the medical community, with Dr. David Isaacs, a doctor who worked at the Nauru centre, describing Australia’s offshore detention policy as “reminiscent of Guantanamo Bay.” Likewise, where claims for asylum are found to be legitimate, resettlement in countries such as Papua New Guinea, Nauru and, in the near future, potentially Cambodia, is particularly troubling. These countries often lack adequate safeguards to ensure the protection of refugees, regularly face corruption and human rights abuses, and generally struggle to provide for their own citizens.

Despite labelling such refugees as “illegal immigrants,” Australia is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, which recognises that refugees facing prosecution have a right to seek asylum in a country regardless of how they arrive or whether they have a valid visa. This means that providing adequate protection to refugees is not only a moral imperative for a country that prides itself on being a free and open democracy but is a requirement under international law. Importantly, historic figures suggest that between 70 and 100 per cent of asylum seekers arriving by boat are found to have valid refugee claims and have ultimately been granted protection. As such, no arguments can be made that the asylum seekers are simply trying to exploit Australian generosity. In fact and in spite of these high grant rates of refugee status, Australia nonetheless spent approximately $1.2 billion dollars on its detention operations in Nauru and Papua New Guinea in 2014-15. It is not only delaying the inevitable granting of asylum to these legitimate refugees, but burdening the Australian taxpayer with significant costs to do so.

All of these issues have come to a head in recent weeks. On the 26th of April, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled that the Australian-funded Manus Island detention centre was illegal and that alternative arrangements would have to be made for refugees held there. Two self-immolation incidents in the space of a fortnight have placed increased pressure on the Australian government to change its detention policy. Of these incidents, one involved a 23 year old Iranian refugee who set himself alight during a scheduled visit by UN representatives, while the other involved a young Somali woman, both of whom self-immolated in protest against living conditions at the Nauru detention centre. What’s more, Australian concern over asylum seeker numbers is beginning to look somewhat trivial in the eyes of the international community when compared to the migration crisis facing Europe.

These issues are forcing Australia’s immigration policy onto the agenda, both domestically and internationally, with the increased publicity in recent weeks as a result of the above-mentioned events being at least something human rights advocates can be thankful for. As it stands, both the current government and the Opposition Labour government advocate for policies of mandatory detention offshore, with no right of resettlement in Australia. In light of the continued reports of abuse and degrading conditions and the country’s obligations under international law, it is clear that this policy is abhorrent in its treatment of asylum seekers, particularly of women and children. Not only does this policy violate the right to freedom, equality and protection from harm that Australians hold dear, it undermines the country’s legitimacy on the international stage. The fact that the vast majority of asylum seekers arriving to Australia do indeed have legitimate claims only serves to further weaken any justification for the government’s immigration policy. With the above in mind, the country’s people must make clear to the government that they will no longer tolerate mandatory detention, be it onshore or offshore, and will hold its politicians and officials accountable for any violations of fundamental human rights that occur in its centres. Likewise, the international community must make their condemnations more loudly heard. With an election scheduled for early July, the time is ripe for change. Australians owe it to their own history to welcome those in need with open arms and to stop leaving asylum seekers high and dry.

Bio: Henry O’Connell is currently a Master of International Economic Policy student at Sciences Po, Paris. He previously worked in Australia and completed a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Melbourne. He has lived in Singapore, France and Spain prior to moving to Paris, and has travelled extensively throughout the world. He is interested in most global issues, and particularly the ability of economic empowerment and business to contribute to development and sustainability.

Quote: “Australians owe it to their own history to welcome those in need with open arms and to stop leaving asylum seekers high and dry”