Thirteen Families Bring Largest-Ever U.N. Complaint Against Australia’s Refugee Policies

Thirteen asylum-seeking families have filed a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Committee (U.N.H.R.C.) against the Australian government’s “Pacific Solution,” saying that the policy has forcibly separated families. Under the Pacific Solution, which was initially implemented from 2001 to 2007 but was later revived in 2012, asylum seekers are transported to detention centers on islands in the Pacific Ocean rather than being allowed to land and settle on the Australian mainland. When being processed offshore, asylum seekers granted refugee status are not guaranteed a place in Australia. Instead, they join a waitlist of sorts to find an alternative country for resettlement. In multiple cases, prospective immigrants who arrived a few months after family members were able to obtain temporary protection, work, or student visas on the mainland were sent to detention centers after restrictions tightened, unable to reunite with their loved ones. The complaint argues that this breaches Australia’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by failing to offer the separated families a pathway to reunite.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who created a Regional Resettlement Arrangement during his short-lived second term of office to divert all “unauthorized maritime arrivals” to mandatory detention with no possibility of obtaining Australian residency, announced in July 2013 that “asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia.”

The detention centers constructed during the Pacific Solution’s 2012 revival on Manus Island, which is part of Papua New Guinea, and on Nauru, an island republic in Micronesia, are essentially makeshift tent cities. Numerous N.G.O.s have spoken out against their conditions, citing water shortages, overcrowding, and a lack of medical care, and the islands’ governments have avowedly refused to let anyone stay longer than five years. It is evident that these centers cannot be a solution to the current refugee crisis.

Australia has more resources and G.D.P. per capita than Papua New Guinea and New Zealand combined, but its restrictive immigration policies make clear that its government expects these nations to simply take its refugee spillover. The Pacific Solution removes any incentive for asylum-seekers to try to make it to Australia, but does nothing to address the hostile governments and violence that have displaced these people across the globe. The U.N.H.R.C. must rule that keeping families together and protecting people from harm is more important than Australia’s misplaced concern for its resources and ethnic makeup.