The Australian minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, has arguably the most unenviable cabinet position in Australian politics. The Asylum Seeker issue is one of the few areas of politics where the two major parties, the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party, find they can agree on. The current Australian government, under Prime Minister Tony Abbott, is adopting a yet more hardline approach than the bipartisan consensus. Titled “Operation Sovereign Borders,” Abbott’s position has been to order the Australian Navy to forcibly intercept unauthorized boats heading into Australian waters and escort them back into Indonesian waters. Abbott’s policy position places Australia in rough waters. Instead of looking to mitigate the problem by helping the Asia-pacific region as a whole work collaboratively to pursue internationally recognized legal channels, Australians are effectively paying their poorer neighbors to do their dirty work.
To put the issue into perspective, Australia, as a nation, has experienced numerous waves of migration. From the Italian and Greek migrant workers of the 1950s, to Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s, and a recent influx of Middle Eastern, African, and Chinese immigrants, Australia’s immigration history, whether grudgingly tolerated or openly welcomed, has made Australia what it is today – a distinctively multicultural country. However, a new wave of asylum seekers, arriving from conflict and poverty stricken areas in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, has provoked an unparalleled level of uproar and divisiveness in Australia.
The term ‘boat people’ refers to asylum seekers who arrive ‘unlawfully’ by boat; in other words, without the authorized visa and legal documentation to enter and settle in Australia. Figures indicate a rising number of unauthorized boat arrivals over the last few years: from 2726 boat people in 2009 to 17202 in 2012, and a noticeable dip to 13108 in 2013.This drop is a reflection of hardline policy favored by both Labor and Liberal parties, the left and right side of mainstream politics, respectively. In the last five years, Australia has known three separate Prime Ministers under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard from the Labor party, and Tony Abbott from the Liberal camp. All three Prime Ministers support a system known as ‘offshore processing’, which involves patrolling borders and ‘turning back’ boats carrying refugees to mandatory detention centers in countries such as Indonesia, Nauru, and Papua New Guinea as well as other islands such as Christmas Island and Fiji, all of which are well compensated for housing and processing these asylum seekers. However, the key policy difference between the two major parties lies in the Liberal Party’s decision to use the Navy to push boats back into international waters so that the Australian government can effectively wash its hands of the boat arrivals, under the guise of a ‘collective regional solution’ to the asylum seeker problem.
Prime Minister Abbott has arguably been the most vocal and controversial spokesperson for this immigration crackdown. When he was the opposition leader, Abbott was notorious for the phrase ‘stop the boats’ and, recently, he has created a stir, alleging that a recent group of asylum seekers who reported mistreatment at the hands of the Royal Australian Navy were in fact ‘breaking the law’ and committing a ‘criminal offence.’ Not only was Abbott’s criticism a cover-up for the abuse which had been caught by an Australian news crew it was also controversial because of the pure legal erroneousness of the statement. Abbott’s verbal fluff-up is symptomatic of a fundamentally embarrassing misreading of Australian and International Law regarding asylum seekers and a manipulation of the rhetoric to inflame the public’s sentiments against asylum seekers. Under Australia’s Commonwealth Migration Act 1958, a person who enters Australia without a valid visa is considered an “unlawful” or an “illegal entrant” but not charged with a “criminal offence.” Moreover, from an international perspective, Australia is beholden to the covenants of the United National Refugee Convention (UNHCR) as a signatory. According to the UNHCR, signatory governments cannot treat asylum seekers as ‘illegal’ as they have the right to seek asylum and, according to the UNHCR definition of refugees, if an asylum seeker’s refugee status is found to be legitimate they are then owed protection by the Australian government and should be granted a permanent protection visa. In recent years, the domestic legal system has also rejected some of these offshore processing facilities, with the Australian High Court concluding that the Labor government’s proposal to establish Malaysian detention centers was invalid.
These detention centers have been subject to a slew of international and domestic criticism. A 1998 report from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission on the policy of mandatory detention policy held that it breached international human rights standards and that prolonged detention unacceptably violated Australia’s human rights obligations. Stories of physical and mental mistreatment, indefinite detention without charge or trial, children growing up in detention, and families forced back to the places they tried desperately to escape, have culminated in public hunger strikes and a recent riot on a Manus island detention camp. In Indonesia, an asylum seeker can wait on average 12 to 15 months to gain official refugee status, and some can be forced to wait up to 10 years with no legal way to challenge their detention. The conditions of these detention centers lead many to turn to people smugglers and make the hazardous commute by boat. Abbott’s government has responded to all this with a measure of secrecy, refusing to comment on the conditions in these detention centers. What is potentially more problematic is the mismatch in constitutional law between Australia and the growing number of places where these asylum seekers are being processed. These processing centers have fewer constitutional protections for UNHCR-approved human rights and therefore create greater legal loopholes for negligence and mistreatment to occur. This issue has only been exacerbated by the fact that journalists have next to no access to these detention facilities and can do little by way of holding the government accountable to and transparent about the treatment of asylum seekers.
However, Australia’s response to the asylum seeker issue is just a symptom of a larger problem in its national politics. Politicians’ polemics are overly couched in terms of protecting boarders, of avoiding an immigrant invasion and of fighting a war against malignant people smugglers. To be sure, there is validity to the slippery slope argument that allowing more boat arrivals will lead to more refugees drowning at sea and the enrichment of the people smuggling industry, but it should not take events such as the recent Manus riot and an incident in 2001 where children refugees drowned when their boat sank near Australian borders to remind us of the human cost of the current policies. So what do we do to solve this complicated problem? As an Australian, I feel a fundamental urge to say that we should give everyone a ‘fair go’, or as former Prime Minister Rudd calls it, ‘a fair shake of the sauce bottle.’ I believe that Australians have to put a stop to the dehumanizing and demeaning rhetoric used to describe asylum seekers, which Abbott’s administration has simply promoted. Instead of evoking an ‘us and them’ war, we should be talking about how can we make the current legal channels more accountable and attractive than the illegal ones. In other words, we must consider how we can discourage desperate and dangerous travel on flimsy rafts. This warrants a policy that is compassionate and internationally minded; rather than sweeping the problem under the rug by pushing boats back, we should encourage the Asia-Pacific region to improve conditions in these processing centers and encourage more UNHCR processing services in the region as a whole.
In this way, Australia may fulfill its national and international obligations.