AUSTRALIA: THE PARADISE ASYLUM SEEKERS WILL NEVER REACH?


By Lauren Lam
Staff Writer

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

The Lady: Assessing Aung San Suu Kyi’s Commitment to Democracy in Burma

By Ariana Criste
Staff Writer

The National League for Democracy (NLD), a political party in the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar led by Aung San Suu Kyi, swept the polls in the mid-November elections–the first open election in Myanmar since the nineteen nineties. This election is a historical landmark for Myanmar, which was previously under the leadership of an authoritarian military junta. A momentous and long overdue victory, these elections mark the beginning of the transition away from the iron grip of the ousted military junta to the promising future of the NLD.

Aung San, Myanmar’s champion of democracy, spent fifteen years under house arrest and was only released five years ago. She is a Nobel Peace Laureate and has drawn praise domestically and internationally for her grace and poise during her fifteen years under house arrest, which she underwent for her involvement as a protest leader in protests against the military junta. As perhaps the most famed political prisoner in the world with a streak of defiance, many look to The Lady, as she is commonly referred to, in hopes that she will address and find solutions to the communal violence and ethnic tensions that Myanmar is facing right now.

Indeed, ethnic conflict within the country is at a critical point. The ethno-religious minority that is native to the Rakhine state of Myanmar, the Rohingyas, willingly face unsafe conditions to flee by boat for neighboring countries in hopes that they will be welcomed and gain some sort of recognition from these countries. Since 2012, tens of thousands of Rohingyas have been killed in communal violence fueled by anti-Muslim sentiments and carried out by the majority group of Burmese Buddhists, including extremist Buddhist Nationalists in the country. Amnesty International has referred to the Rohingya people as “the most persecuted refugees in the world,” and they are a stateless people who are disenfranchised. As a result of this marginalization, tens of thousands of Rohingyas have decided to flee their home to seek better conditions elsewhere.

Aung San’s silence on the plight of the Rohingyas has drawn international criticism. In the past, The Lady has rejected the view that the crimes against the Rohingya constitute ethnic cleansing. She has also said to not “forget that violence has been committed by both sides,” and told international media to not “exaggerate” the situation. The only Rohingya-related issue that she has taken a stance upon is the two-child policy that some provinces in Myanmar implemented for Rohingyas that she believes are discriminatory.

The forecast for Rohingyas under the NLD does not seem optimistic. Aung San’s silence echoes the majority opinion that the Rohingya are Bengali immigrants or foreign aliens. Much of the base of support for the NLD comes from the Buddhist extremists that are carrying out the attacks against the Rohingya population.

For what are likely reasons of political expedience, it is unlikely that Aung San or the NLD will address the Rohingya issue. They are navigating a post-authoritarian political landscape where the military stills plays an active role in politics and will hold seats in the government even after the transition between parties occurs. If they showed active support for the Rohingyas or other Muslim ethnic minorities, it is likely that the loss of perceived political legitimacy would play into the interests of the military.

The NLD is walking a narrow line as it tries to move forward with the transition towards democratization in Myanmar. External forces are vying to hasten or slow this transition. Political actors, some domestic and some international, have varied expectations for the party. The NLD must balance outcries from NGOs about the Rohingya crisis, especially considering the media attention on the issue right now. They also have to deal with external imposition of ideals of democracy from the West and from investors in the state who may not have a complete idea of the situation domestically, and who have expressed discontent with the pace that Myanmar is democratizing at. They must maintain political legitimacy against a military regime that actively tries to detract from the legitimacy of their leadership. To do this requires the NLD to narrowly maintain viewpoints and policies that do not alienate their political base, much of which holds very anti-Muslim sentiments.

In this light it is unlikely that, under Aung San, the Rohingya peoples will see their cause furthered. While this provides hardly any consolation, it is also unlikely that violence from an institutionalized, state-led level will worsen. It is very probable that the state of Myanmar’s transition to democracy will be a positive force in the lives of the Rohingyas and other ethnic or religious minorities in the state. All of Myanmar will see tangible benefits from the transition to democracy from the previously brutal military government, and the NLD will likely lessen the active oppression on the populace that was experienced under the previous government. As state corruption and brutality decrease, the Rohingyas should experience marked improvement in their situation. This prediction must be taken with a degree of reservation, however, because it is unlikely that they will gain true state recognition and rights in the near future. This is not politically feasible in the current climate, which is why noted human rights champion Aung San and the NLD are avoiding the issue. It seems that, for this marginalized and persecuted group, the National League of Democracy under Aung San will not be a shining beacon of human rights advancement. Still, with Myanmar’s slow path of democratization, the Rohingyas can expect gradual increases in their rights and privileges and, hopefully, integration and acceptance into Burmese society.

Image by Rob Beschizza

 

THE SECOND EL CORTE: JUNOT DIAZ, THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC, AND HAITIAN DISPLACEMENT

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By Author
Aisha Ali

Three weeks ago, the Dominican Republic’s Consul General of New York stripped Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz of his Order of Merit, awarded to him in 2009, over claims that he is “anti-Dominican”. Diaz immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic as a child in 1974, and has spent most of his life in the U.S. Despite this, much of his work incorporates his Dominican identity, especially his non-literary pursuits. Diaz has been an advocate for Dominicans and Dominican-Americans as an active member of community organizations and supporter of immigration reform in the U.S. So why has the Dominican Republic rejected its most respected representative?

The Dominican Republic’s recent turnabout with Diaz is partially the result of an op-ed piece he co-wrote with Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat. The piece specifically criticizes the Dominican government’s deportation of Haitian-Dominicans. Though the article was published in the New York Times in 1999, it came back into the spotlight this summer when Diaz and Danticat met with U.S. Members of Congress to craft a resolution condemning the Dominican government’s deportation policy. The Dominican Supreme Court issued a ruling in 2013 stating that people born between 1929 and 2010 to non-citizen parents are ineligible for Dominican citizenship, a decision that has retroactively stripped Dominican-born Haitians of their citizenship and created a barrier to naturalization for long-time residents with Haitian ancestry. Although many Haitians residing in the Dominican Republic at the moment immigrated in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, even more are generational Dominicans, with parents or grandparents having emigrated from the other side of Hispaniola in search of better opportunities. From the 1920s until the 1980s, the Dominican Republic was grateful for the cheap labor provided by Haitians on American-owned farm. Even in 2011 the country continued to help Haitians fleeing an impoverished and unstable country. Recently, however, according to locals, the influx of Haitian immigrants has led to an increase in crime and a stark depletion of resources in a country with an already struggling economy.

The 230-mile long border separating Haiti and the Dominican Republic has had a long history of malleability, with thousands of Haitians and Dominicans living at or near the borderlands for decades. But the history of this population exchange, and the century-long tensions between Haitians and Dominicans, paints a picture that could explain how a country could make over 200,000 of its citizens stateless and condemn a renowned author-activist fighting against the decision. Haiti and the Dominican Republic unequally share the island of Hispaniola, a colonial division by France and Spain that allocated three-eighth of the island to Haiti and the remainder to the Dominican Republic. This division of land, along with post-independence global trade embargos on Haiti, has been a main contributing factor to the drastic difference in the two countries’ economies. Haiti is primarily dry, prone to droughts, and suffers from catastrophic deforestation while the Dominican Republic has fertile valleys, forests, and an abundance of natural resources which make it a prime exporter of coffee, sugar, and cocoa. The Dominican Republic’s economy is also relatively diversified as manufacturing, mining, textiles, and agriculture contribute to $10.1 billion in exports per year with a GDP per capita hovering around $13,000. Meanwhile, though Haiti grows some sugarcane and rice, the textile industry employs the majority of Haiti’s workforce and exports per year only contribute $900 million to the economy, about 11% of the Dominican Republic’s gains from exports. The GDP per capita reflects this smaller struggling economy, averaging a mere $1,800.

Economic opportunity has always been a major reason for Haitian immigration to the Dominican Republic, but it likely isn’t the only reason for Haitian expulsion. The Dominican economy has enjoyed a steady 7% GDP growth rate in the last couple of years, placing it in the top 50 countries for economic growth, as well as relatively low unemployment and inflation rates. However, the Haitian workers, citizens or otherwise, contributing to this growth, have a completely different culture, language, and, for the most part, skin-tone than their Dominican counterparts. Skin color plays a large role in Dominican society, as elsewhere in the world, and typically reflects class and level of education due to the marginalization of darker-skinned residents. Antihaitianismo, or anti-Haitian sentiments, became an important part of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo’s 30-year presidency. Under Trujillo, Dominican forces allegedly murdered between 500 and 30,000 Haitian-Dominicans living at the borderlands in a massacre called El Corte. Reasons for the massacre range from a need for border security to protecting the Dominican economy from imported, untaxed Haitian goods.

Recently, Dominicans without Haitian ancestry have been swept up in the raids as well. Locals attribute this to the police specifically targeting dark-skinned individuals for deportation. Those who are arrested and can prove Dominican citizenship are often denied access to their papers by guards threatening to kill them if they return to their houses. For those who do have access to their documents, the wait times for official registration with the government are too long to bear. For many, the only option now is to return to a country they have no memory of or connection to and start over again.

Image By ALA THE AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION

Sources:

Alcindor, Yamiche. “Deportees from Dominican Republic Land on Haiti Border.” USA Today, 23 Aug. 2015. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

“CIA Factbook: Haiti.” The World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

“CIA Factbook: Dominican Republic” The World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

Chow, Andrew. “Junot Díaz Criticized by Dominican Republic Consul.” New York Times. 25 Oct. 2015. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

Granitz, Peter. “Tensions Rise At Border As Dominican Republic Begins Deporting Haitians.” NPR. NPR, 31 Aug. 2015. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

Nolan, Rachel. “Displaced in the D.R.” Harpers Magazine. 1 May 2015. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

”Thousands of Haitians Fleeing Dominican Republic Stuck in Camps.” The Guardian, 5 Aug. 2015. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.