Australia’s Poor Treatment Of Asylum Seekers Arriving By Boat

For many years, Australia treatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat has been considered controversial. Upon arrival, the seekers are sent to an offshore processing centre, while their claims for protection are processed. But currently, there are only two of these centres in the region: one on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and another in Nauru. To make matters worse, these camps possess notoriously inadequate living conditions. And the refugees, even after being processed as such, are not legally able to settle in Australia. Rather, they must stay in Nauru or Papua New Guinea, where they often face abuse and neglect.

According to the Australian Red Cross, an asylum seeker is someone defined as “seeking protection because they have a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.” The definition also includes people forced to leave their home country to avoid other serious human rights violations. Most of the people attempting to reach Australia by boat depart from Indonesia, having come from countries like Myanmar in Southeast Asia. This is a costly and dangerous journey, but many believe it is their only hope.

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries and that it is not illegal to cross borders without documents and passports in the process of doing so. Therefore, asylum seekers are legally allowed to arrive in Australia by boat without a visa and ask for protection.

According to the Parliament of Australia, the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat has increased dramatically since 1976, with 20,000 arriving in 2013. This has decreased recently following tougher asylum policies implemented by the government. The new policy allows Australian military vessels to patrol the sea and intercept asylum seeker boats, towing them back to Indonesia or ordering them to return in inflatable lifeboats. The government justifies this policy by claiming it prevents deaths at sea, but if the political will to save lives truly existed, we should expect a more comprehensive and protection-focused response.

This government policy of forcing boats to return is irresponsible and is not a suitable long-term solution. A new policy brief from the University of New South Wales’s Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law argues that this course of action is actually illegal under international law, and does not prevent other struggling people from attempting the journey. The policy brief says, “These deterrence operations do not accord with the UN convention on the law of the sea, the search and rescue convention, the safety of life at sea convention, the refugee convention, or the core international human rights treaties.”

Considering the potential harm of ordering boats to return to their origin countries, asylum claims should be assessed and processed on land. This is a safer approach, which eliminates the need for the offshore processing centres. To prevent deaths at sea the Australian military could conduct search and rescue operations to pick up asylum seekers and ensure they land safely. Because the military already operates in the sea (to turn boats around), changing their mission should result in no significant economic loss to Australia.

In relation to violations of human rights, states are prohibited from sending people to any country where they may risk serious harm or persecution. Unfortunately, the 1,700 detained asylum seekers held on Manus Island and Nauru are known to face frequent abuse, mistreatment and neglect at the offshore processing centres. The deplorable living conditions include poor hygiene facilities, cramped conditions and a lack of air conditioning in the tropical climate. Amnesty International reported that many detainees suffer violence at the hands of the guards and local residents. Some people have been detained in these centres for 3-5 years, and the indefinite end to the confinement can lead to overwhelming despair.

In 2016 Australia agreed to the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which declares “profound solidarity with, and support for, the millions of people in different parts of the world who, for reasons beyond their control, are forced to uproot themselves and their families from their homes.” Australia must uphold its obligation to the people seeking asylum by boat. Simply closing its borders will not provide adequate protection to those who need it. Australia must act as a constructive role model and set a positive example for countries around the world, by sharing, not avoiding, responsibility. This will encourage other nations to support asylum seekers and refugees.

Therefore, the only reasonable course of action is for Australia to immediately end their offshore processing operations. They must prioritize assessment of the asylum claims, so the people seeking asylum can move on from life in the processing centres. Every day that men, women and children remain in these centres is another day of anguish and suffering.

Potentially Australia could allow the recognised refugees to settle in Australia. Though the trauma and strife of the past cannot be erased, this may allow the immigrants to repair and rebuild their lives. An economically prosperous and successful country like Australia has the resources to provide them with medical care and an opportunity to develop their skills.

Overall, there is a worldwide trend of people moving from rural areas to urban ones. Primarily people move to seek more job opportunities and economic gains. In turn, this leads to a decline in the population of urban towns and vacancies in low-skilled and agricultural jobs. Australia could solve this problem by encouraging their recognised refugees to locate themselves in these rural areas. Australia would become more diverse and multicultural, which would strengthen political ties with the origin countries.

Ideally, Australia should take measures to address the issues and causes surrounding the forced displacement in the region. If people can find safety and security in their home country, they would never have to seek asylum in Australia. But this is not reality. As a country with economic assets and a lot of regional political influence, Australia has the power to take on this responsibility.