Whereas European media is inundated with new policy developments and opinions concerning the recent influx of asylum seekers arriving at Europe’s borders, you rarely read about the controversial immigration policies of Europe’s ally down under. While Australia may be known more for its beaches, barbecues and backpackers, what is happening to asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat should not escape the debate.
Asylum seekers who embark on the ocean journey to Australia, often setting out from Sri Lanka or Indonesia but in some cases coming from as far as Syria, Iran and Afghanistan face one of three fates. None of these three fates involve asylum seekers reaching Australian shores. Instead they are met at sea, often still in international waters, by an Australian naval or customs ship that forcibly intercepts them.
Those onboard, having been at sea for days without adequate food, water or shelter, may be asked a few rudimentary questions about where they came from and why they were heading to Australia- a process referred to as ‘enhanced screening’. They will not be told of their international right to seek asylum, and they will not be given legal assistance unless they know to ask for it specifically. While the government refuses to comment on operations at sea for alleged issues of national security, there have been claims of violence and abuse of asylum seekers at the hands of Australian officials.
In most instances their vessel will be forcibly turned back, and either handed over directly to Sri Lankan, Vietnamese or Indonesian authorities at sea, or removed from Australia’s territorial waters and left on the edge of Indonesia’s waters. If boats become unseaworthy during this process, asylum seekers are transferred onto custom-made boats and told they have just enough fuel to reach Indonesian shores.
Statistics show that the vast majority of those who attempt to reach Australia by boat with asylum claims qualify as refugees (an average of 90.6% between 2009 and 2013). Sending refugees back to countries where their right to protection is not recognized can amount to a violation of the legal principle of non-refoulement, to which Australia is bound by international customary and human rights law. Rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch have documented the abuses refugees have suffered directly at the hands of Indonesian, Sri Lankan and Vietnamese authorities. In Sri Lanka ‘failed’ refugees have been thrown into jail after being handed over by Australian authorities. None of these countries have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, which recognizes the responsibility of governments to provide refugees with adequate protection.
Those who are not handed over or left on the edges of Indonesian territorial waters are taken to one of Australia’s immigration detention centres in the Pacific states of Papua New Guinea (PNG) or Nauru, also known as ‘offshore-processing’ centres. In 2015 the UN found the conditions in these camps to amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Asylum seekers are locked up in punitive facilities without adequate access to healthcare. There have been allegations of sexual abuse by guards, including rape. Two local Papua New Guinean men are on trial for allegedly killing an Iranian asylum seeker during riots in the centre last year. Constant delays in the processing of their asylum applications and uncertainty about their future have caused many to become depressed or suffer from other mental illnesses.
Children are kept in the same unhygienic and overcrowded facilities alongside sometimes suicidal adults and do not always have access to education. For those who do attend classes, some have fainted from the heat as temperatures rise to 50 degrees inside the school tents. In March 2015 the Australian Human Rights Commission found that children lacked access to education, basic healthcare and appropriate clothing, the conditions causing ‘extreme levels of physical emotional, psychological and developmental distress’. There have been numerous cases of self-harm, including lip sewing and an attempted hanging. Some children referred to themselves as a number instead of with their name, a reflection of how they were spoken to by guards. Australia’s arbitrary detention of children violates numerous articles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. As of August 31 2015 there were 1589 asylum seekers being held in offshore detention, of which 93 were children.
On the 25th of September the UN’s Special Rappoteur François Crépeau cancelled his visit to Nauru and PNG when he found out that Australia’s recent Border Force Act threatens welfare and healthcare employees who work in the offshore centres with up to two years of imprisonment for speaking up about their experiences. Crépeau stated that ‘The threat of reprisals with persons who would want to cooperate with me on the occasion of this official visit is unacceptable’.
In line with its chosen strategy of deterrence, in 2012 Australia declared that any asylum seekers found to be refugees in Nauru or Papua New Guinea would never ‘make Australia home’. Instead, they can choose between resettlement in Papua New Guinea, infinite detention, voluntarily return home (aka back to the country they were fleeing from) or resettlement in Cambodia. Cambodia does not boast a good track record of respecting the rights of refugees, and Australia may well be guilty of chain-refoulement by sending refugees there. Controversially, Australia continues to encourage asylum seekers to return to Syria, often alerting the Syrian government of their imminent return. The International Organisation for Migration refuses to aid Australia with these returns.
The Refugee Convention, which Australia helped draft and voluntarily signed up to, binds the country to provide protection to refugees. Australia’s current policies violate international human rights and refugee law in various ways. The idea of regional burden sharing, involving poor island states taking on the task of processing and resettling asylum seekers in return for economic incentives, is a clear Australian attempt to skirt its own responsibilities to asylum seekers.
Australia’s voluntary relatively large intake of refugees directly from refugee camps via UNHCR channels should not be conflated with Australia’s responsibilities to those who claim asylum within its territory, and a recently pledged intake of 12 000 Syrian refugees does not excuse Australia’s abysmal treatment of refugees, including Syrians, who arrive by sea.
Just days before the Australian High Court will hear a legal challenge to the offshore centres, the government of Nauru announced on the 4th of October that it would start allowing asylum seekers to move freely on the island instead of being locked up in detention. While this gain in freedom is a positive step, their fate and safety remains uncertain. After just four refugees chose to be resettled in Cambodia a year after an expensive AUD $55 million deal, Australian Minister for Immigration said Australia was in talks with the Philippines to see if refugees from Manus Island could possibly be resettled there as part of a ‘regional arrangement’ on the 9th of October. The coming months shall show whether Australia’s new Prime Minister will be willing to turn around the country’s poor track record on immigration asylum.
As a developed and usually law-abiding country now campaigning for a seat on the UN’s Human Rights Council, Australia would be wise to close down its offshore processing centres, provide asylum seekers with adequate processing and refugees with adequate protection and resettlement options in line with its international obligations. Let Australia be a country that takes not only its fair share of backpackers, but also of refugees fleeing conflict and persecution.
Cecilia Diemont is a recent graduate of King’s College London (MA ‘International Peace & Security’, War Studies/Dickson Poon School of Law).