The Flaws And Failures Of Australia’s Response To “Boat People”

Australia’s Current Response

The issue of how to respond to those who come to Australia by boat is one that has plagued the country for many years. With refugees continuing to brave the journey by sea, the question of how to address this situation is one constantly on the minds of the Australian people and their politicians. Although policy has varied over time, it has constantly been subject to harsh criticism from human rights organisations and members of the international community, who claim Australia’s methods of dealing with so called “boat people” are inhumane and violate human rights.

The current policy is one of offshore processing, with refugees never actually setting foot in Australia. People seeking asylum by boat are stopped by the Australian coastguard and are sent to detention facilities on the small island nation of Nauru, and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. There is no time limit on how long they can be held there. After a long examination process, if they are found not to be refugees according to UN requirements, they are sent back to where they originally came from. If they are deemed refugees then they are settled in countries other than Australia.

Even if someone manages to get past the coastguard into Australia by boat, they are not allowed to apply for any sort of visa whatsoever unless the Immigration Minister personally intervenes. This means they will be deported. Current Australian policy does not allow anyone who comes by boat without documentation to be accepted into the country.

Recently, the current Australian government also announced plans for the introduction of legislation that would ban any adult who tried to reach Australia illegally by boat from ever being able to obtain an Australian visa in the future, even for business or for travel. The other main Australian political party, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) last week announced plans to unanimously oppose the idea, however, and it is unlikely to come into action.


Why it’s not working

The current situation is clearly not ideal. According to the New York Post, Australia’s policy costs taxpayers $419,000 USD per detainee each year and violates international law. There are a number of serious issues arising from the system, including a lack of transparency by the government and terrible conditions for those detained in detention centres.

 A major problem with Australia’s refugee policy as a whole is how the public is largely misinformed about what is going on. Although “boat people” are not accepted as part of Australia’s refugee intake, in relation to the people that are, the government frequently uses technicalities to make claims that Australia is the second highest provider of “resettlement” to refugees.

Resettlement through the United Nations High Commisioner for Refugees (UNHCR), however, has a very narrow definition, and is a process only a few countries engage in. Countries such as Germany integrate refugees mainly through other methods, and take in many more. For comparison, in 2015-16, Australia accepted a combined total of 25,750 refugees (this was bumped up by the government from 13,750 in response to Syrian refugees) in contrast, in 2015, Germany registered 1.1 million refugees as asylum seekers. Although Germany accepted more than 42 times as many refugees as Australia, the Australian government claims that it is a world leader in refugee intake because it takes refugees from a limited program, one which according to the UNHCR itself only helps resettle 1% of the at risk refugees it identifies worldwide.

As a result of claims like these, the Australian people are likely to think that Australia is doing significantly more to help refugees than it actually is, and adopt a more a aggressive stance towards those who come “illegally” by boat.

The stigma attached to “boat people” is also problematic when it comes to public opinion. A 2016 Lowy Institute report found that Australian public opinion is largely negative regarding refugee acceptance, with most Australians believing Australia should not take any more than it currently is. Some of this can be attributed to common terminology and stereotypes used. Refugees who come by boat are constantly referred to as “queue jumpers” who are supposedly trying to steal other “legitimate” refugees’ spots. The word “illegal” is also frequently used to vilify these people who may just be seeking safety and asylum. People are too caught up in these stereotypes to look at things objectively and question why these boat people are actually doing what they are doing, and what has driven them to risk their lives on a boat to try and seek safety in a foreign country.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the current method is not the illegality of the immigrants, but of the detention centres themselves. In April 2016, Manus Island’s detention of refugees was ruled to be illegal by the Papua New Guinea High Court due to it breaching the right to personal liberty outlined in the PNG constitution. Despite agreeing to close it at an undetermined time in the future, the Australian government has refused to take the people held there to Australia, and has refused New Zealand’s offer to accept 150 of them.

Human rights complaints about detention centres are highly prevalent. In June 2016, the Australian news program A Current Affair was permitted to film inside the Nauru detention centre, the first time a television crew was allowed inside. Speaking to detainees, claims of sexual assault, rape, poor living conditions, overcrowding, beatings, crime, poor medical treatment and poor education arose. Many said that although conditions had improved slightly with building additions to the facility earlier in the year, they still lived in fear of police and the Nauru locals.

Human rights watch and Amnesty International released a statement earlier this year saying detainees on Nauru suffer “severe abuse, inhumane treatment, and neglect.” They stated that the Australian government’s failure to address abuse appears to be a deliberate attempt to discourage other asylum seekers from trying to enter the country by boat. They claim that those held on Nauru routinely face neglect, both by health workers as well as other service providers. Adding to this are frequent assaults of detainees, including sexual assault, by local Naurans which mostly go unpunished. One woman interviewed claimed that she had married someone solely so she could feel safer.

Medical care is also a prominent issue, with detainees enduring extreme delays and sometimes denial of medical assistance, even for life threatening conditions. Mental health issues are also a major problem, with self-harm and suicide attempts being disturbingly prevalent. A 23-year-old Iranian man died in May after setting himself on fire, and a woman did the same a week later but survived. Many other detainees have expressed suicidal inclinations, with one 15-year-old girl saying that she had already tried to kill herself twice.

The abuse and poor living conditions of the Nauru centre have forced many detainees to make a terrible choice, as they are given little option but to accept or request a return to the countries they’ve fled, and where they face the persecution they tried to escape in the first place.

Australian law has also been introduced to restrict the freedom of speech of those working at the detention centres. People such as teachers, workers and doctors are prohibited from disclosing any information they may have acquired as part of their work. They are banned from disclosing any inhumane actions of the government at risk of facing criminal charges.

Stopping the influx of boats has additionally caused problems overseas, as many refugees are left stuck in transit in places like Indonesia.  Refugees reach these places and are stopped from going any further. Stuck in limbo as they wait through the often years long refugee registration process, they face difficulty finding jobs and accommodation. Inside Story has reported that although refugees are allowed to live in the Indonesian community, many are turning themselves in to Indonesian detention centres reserved for those found in off limits areas like ports and transport hubs, just so they can have food and shelter. An October New York Times article said that while Australia’s policy of offshore detention has been largely successful in stopping the flow of boats from Indonesia, it has landed these refugees in “what amounts to cruel and indefinite detention.”


What should be done

The issue of “boat people” is not one that can easily be resolved, although there are some immediate steps that should be taken in order to improve the situations of those negatively affected by Australia’s policies.

Firstly, transparency should be promoted. Those working at detention centres should not be legally prevented from speaking out about human rights abuses and poor living conditions. The public should be made aware of the truth of what is going on, and the government should be open about it, allowing independent human rights monitors and other journalists access to the islands.

This transparency would hopefully also lead to better conditions in detention centres, as when the government’s actions are out in the open, it will become much harder to turn a blind eye to human rights abuse and poor treatment of detainees.

Medical treatment should also be heavily prioritised, with quicker response times, and serious cases being taken to Australia for treatment without the significant delays that are currently a major problem. Mental health care should be provided to the large number of detainees who have expressed signs of mental health issues.

The issue of “boat people” is a major one, and coming to a complete and humane solution is likely to take many years. Action can still be taken now and making positive progress, no matter how small at first, could really have a significant impact on those who are currently suffering under Australia’s refugee policy.


Fraser Lawrance