Australia’s government is scrambling to respond in the face of fundamental legal and ethical challenges to its avowedly tough border protection regime.
In April, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled that Australia’s indefinite detention of asylum seekers was illegal, leading PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill to announce that the regional processing center would be closed. Last week both governments confirmed that the center would be shut, although the fate of the 854 men detained there is still highly uncertain.
Australia’s government remains intransigent, reiterating that asylum seekers detained offshore will never be resettled in Australia. Refugees on Manus Island may resettle in Papua New Guinea but few have done so, which is hardly surprising given they are unsafe living among a hostile community. Only a week ago, two refugee men were assaulted with an iron bar and robbed by seven locals.
Then there is the Australian government’s $55 million deal to resettle refugees in Cambodia, which by the Cambodian government’s own admission is a “failure.” Since the agreement was signed in September 2014 only five refugees have volunteered to move to Cambodia, most of whom have subsequently left.
Australia’s detention centers have long been criticized by the United Nations, Australia’s own Human Rights Commission, and prominent NGOs. A recent investigation by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International into Australia’s other offshore detention center on Nauru reported “appalling abuse[and] neglect of refugees.” According to Amnesty researcher Anna Neistat, “few other countries go to such lengths to deliberately inflict suffering on people seeking safety and freedom.”
The Guardian Australia subsequently released 2,100 leaked incident files — dubbed the #NauruFiles — from Australia’s security contractors on the island, detailing systemic self-harm, sexual and physical assaults, and the abuse of children. The UN has confirmed that these reports are consistent with its previous investigations and Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that Australia’s offshore detention network was becoming “increasingly dire and untenable.”
This has reignited debate around Australia’s use of offshore detention. Nauru’s president, Baron Waqa, alleged that doctors, teachers, caseworkers, and guards within the facility had “cooked up” reports of abuse. Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton meanwhile flung accusations at prominent civil society and media organizations. Dutton claimed that he had been “defamed” by Australia’s national broadcaster, ABC, and the Guardian Australia. He also accused the NGO Save the Children of leaking the documents to the Guardian.
Save the Children responded by saying that the minister’s claims were patently “false” and that they had complied with their contract with the Australian government, the law, and preserved client confidentiality. Director of Policy and Public Affairs Mat Tinkler added that the government had a “history of shooting the messenger when it comes to matters relating to Nauru — instead they should be focusing on keeping people safe and urgently finding humane and sustainable resettlement options for the hundreds languishing on the island.”
Meanwhile, Christian activist group Love Makes A Way held protests around the country including at the respective offices of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Another group of protesters interrupted a speech by Turnbull last week, bluntly demanding, “For God’s sake, Malcolm, close the fucking camps.” Public demonstrations are planned for later in August.
After the “continuing deterioration in the way that asylum seekers are dealt with and some of the tragic consequences, including self-immolations, suicides, and suicide attempts … there may be the beginnings of a shift in the way people are thinking about these things,” says Professor Harry Minas, director of the Center for International Mental Health at the University of Melbourne.
After the publication of the Nauru files, a group called Academics for Refugees released an open letter to Turnbull along with a policy paper entitled “A Just and Humane Approach for Refugees” with the support of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). More than 2,070 academics have signed. According to one of the authors, Sara Dehm of Melbourne Law School, “We need immediate action now to close the camps and permanently resettle people in Australia, so that they can re-establish their lives in a secure and meaningful manner. But once people are safe, Australia also needs a new approach and to move away from the current damaging paradigm of deterrence.”
“A Just and Humane Approach” accordingly recommends measures that echo policies proposed for a number of years by a range of legal and migration experts, including the UNHCR, Refugee Council of Australia, and Australia21, the Center for Policy Development and the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Center for International Refugee Law at UNSW. The four key recommendations are: to close immigration detention centers and end mandatory detention; initiate comprehensive law reform to ensure Australia upholds its international obligations; promote a decent livelihood and thriving communities for people seeking asylum or who have been granted Australia’s protection; and foster positive empathetic narratives about people seeking asylum.
It also implores the government to host a National Policy Summit in 2017 to bring together “asylum seekers, refugees and former refugees; migrant and refugee advocates; policy experts; community representatives; and politicians from all parties.” The summit would work toward implementing these policy recommendations, as well as initiate more relationships between Australia and its neighbors and recognize Australia’s potential for leadership on the issue of irregular migration in developing regional solutions. These calls have the support of the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs.
Some critics have suggested this will be yet another talk fest. One conservative blogger wrote that “if the summit comes up with solutions that the advocates don’t want, the advocates won’t change their position an inch. So the summit must come up with the answer that the advocates want, else it’s illegitimate.” Junkee’s political editor Osman Faruqi tweeted: “1,800 experts want a ‘summit’ on Nauru. Because the last time ‘experts’ came up with a refugee policy it worked out so well” — referring to the Gillard-appointed Houston panel that suggested Australia should restart offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island.
But Dehm emphasises that asylum seekers and refugees themselves also need to be granted a voice: “We’re proposing a National Summit as a symbolic political moment, to mark a rejection of the harmful policies of deterrence, offshore processing and mandatory detention. We need to listen to the voices and expertise of people most affected by Australia’s policies — refugees and asylum seekers themselves. A Summit would provide the space for this dialogue and transformation.”
“People have a right to seek asylum and our policies need to recognize this.”
Australia’s human services minister Alan Tudge said this week that despite “revelations in recent weeks … there is still public support for offshore detention.” Such a proclamation is audacious. In 2011 when the Gillard government pressed ahead with reintroducing offshore detention, a Nielsen poll showed that a majority of Australian voters across the political spectrum were opposed to offshore processing.
A recent Amnesty International study showed that Australians’ attitudes were amongst the most welcoming to refugees on the planet, with seven out of 10 thinking that the government should do more to help refugees.
The ruling conservative Liberal-National Coalition has just won another election and thus does not stand to face electoral consequences for reshaping policy to meet basic human rights and international legal obligations. Following the recommendations of experts to alter its besieged asylum policy would also help restore Australia’s international standing and diplomatic credibility.
Australia’s government would do well to finally listen to the United Nations, human rights organizations, and domestic legal experts that are lining up urging it to do so.
Max Walden works for an international development NGO in Indonesia and is a Research Assistant with the Sydney Asia Pacific Migration Center at the University of Sydney. Twitter: @maxwalden_