By Lauren Lam
By many standards, Australia is one of the most advanced countries in the world. Australia is rich in natural resources and biodiversity, ranks in the top ten countries by gross national income per capita, and its citizens enjoy the world’s highest minimum wage. It is unsurprising therefore that Australia has become an attractive destination for asylum seekers from the Indo-Pacific region who face persecution in their countries of origin. According to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Australia received 8,960 asylum applications in 2014, with the majority of applications from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq. However, Australia has recently come under fire for its policy of sending asylum seekers to offshore detention centres with horrific condition, as well as for its recent agreement to resettle asylum seekers in Cambodia in exchange for money. Does Australia, as a wealthy, powerful nation, have a moral obligation to help those who face persecution and have become stateless? Could the government even have a legal obligation?
After paying people smugglers and enduring treacherous journeys via boat, many of those who seek asylum never touch ground in Australia. The last Labour government re-established offshore detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea where the average length of detention is 14 months. One doctor who visited the Nauru detention centre in December 2014 compares the centre’s conditions to those of prisons and concentration camps. He claims people at these centres are referred to by their boat numbers and says that he has witnessed other systemic bullying and humiliation which contributes to significant mental health issues after prolonged detention periods. Some asylum seekers at the Manus Island detention centre, located in Papua New Guinea, have reported that they have found insects and human teeth in their food and must also deal with non-functional toilets, confiscated mobile phones, and the risk of unexploded World War II munitions. In 2014, after a dispute between Papua New Guinean guards and asylum seekers became violent, one asylum seeker ended up dead. Doctors, aid workers, and other detention centre workers risk up to two years’ imprisonment by revealing details of the centres’ conditions, which is not allowed under current Australian legislation. Such conditions are completely unacceptable, and if the current government continues to send asylum seekers to these centres, it risks damaging Australia’s reputation on the international stage.
Rather than improving the refugee application process or bettering conditions for asylum seekers, the Liberal-National coalition government, under former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and now Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, has expanded on the previous Labour government’s tough immigration policy. Abbott’s administration introduced “Operation Sovereign Borders”, which puts the military in control of all asylum operations. This Operation means military vessels are able to guard territorial waters and intercept any boats en route to Australia. As of last November, passengers from a minimum of 15 boats were either towed back to Indonesia or sent back in inflatable lifeboats. In October 2015, Al Jazeera reported it had been over a year since a boat carrying asylum seekers was able to reach Australia.
Possibly even more controversial than the government’s tow-back policy is the government’s formal agreement with the government of Cambodia, which awards Cambodia A$40 million (approximately $28 million USD) over four years in exchange for resettling Australian refugees. The agreement has provoked criticism in Cambodia, Australia, and abroad since Cambodia is a much poorer nation that already struggles to protect and provide for its own citizens. While Australia ranks ninth in The Economist’s Intelligence Unit’s 2014 Democracy Index, Cambodia ranks a dismal 103rd. Frighteningly, the Australian government is currently in talks with the Philippines in hopes of striking a similar deal. Poorer countries such as Cambodia and the Philippines simply do not have the resources to take in thousands of refugees, and thus more of the burden should fall on Australia.
What has caused Australia, a widely well-respected country, to develop such a brutal immigration policy? Quite simply, the government’s zero-tolerance approach to asylum seekers arriving by boat has significant support. Although the government has received considerable criticism domestically, according to one nationwide survey, 71 per cent of Australians still support the government’s tow-back policy. The Liberal-National coalition won the election back in 2013 with a “stop the boats” platform, though the Labour Party also had a tough stance.
One of the major narratives the Australian government has played on is the need to prevent illegal migration, claiming that 18,000 people arrived illegally in Australia by sea between 2012 and 2013. The government has also claimed that it is acting morally because the route asylum seekers use to reach Australia is connected to criminal gangs and encourages people smuggling. By introducing its tow-back policy, the government says it is deterring potential refugees from ever making the treacherous journey from Indonesia to Australia, the route most asylum seekers take, which thus saves lives.
Interestingly enough, Australia actually has a history of tough immigration policy. In 1901, the Immigration Restriction Act, otherwise known as the “White Australia Policy” was passed which severely restricted the ability of non-Europeans to immigrate to Australia. This appalling legislation introduced the infamous “Dictation Test” in which applicants were required to write 50 words in any European language chosen by the immigration officer. Fortunately, the White Australian Policy has since been abolished.
Although every country’s government may determine its own immigration policy, several international human rights groups have argued that Operation Sovereign Borders and related policies are illegal according to international human rights law. The 1951 UN Refugee Convention states that countries cannot return asylum seekers to their countries of origin if they will face a significant risk of persecution. Thus, the Australian government may not only have a moral responsibility to help asylum seekers trying to reach Australia, but arguably also a legal one.
Shortly before leaving office, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott committed Australia to accepting 12,000 Syrian refugees. This announcement appears to be a break in an otherwise uncompromising stance on asylum seekers and refugees, yet there are still several limitations of this policy which suggest the commitment is not as big of an advancement as it initially seems. Abbott stated that the admitted refugees would not include anyone in Australia’s offshore detention centres because the government does not want to “reward people smugglers.” Shockingly, some members of the government have even expressed that Syrian refugees who are Christian should be prioritised over those who are Muslim.
Over 57 per cent of Australians polled said the government should accept more Syrian refugees. It could very well be that Australians support accepting Syrian refugees but not asylum seekers arriving by boat from other countries, as Australians may want to “jump on the bandwagon” and help manage the European Refugee Crisis like several other western nations. Syrian refugees receive significantly more media coverage than the other asylum seekers applying to immigrate to Australia. One example would be the disturbing, viral images of three-year old Alan Kurdi, who washed up dead back in September . However pessimistic this explanation may be, it does offer some hope. Perhaps if the Australian government is vulnerable to domestic and international pressure regarding Syrian refugees, it may also be possible to persuade the government to open its borders to others who seek asylum in this idyllic, but currently off-limits, country.
Photo By Takver