As immigration remains a politically contentious and emotive issue, particularly in industrialised nations, the numbers of people forcibly displaced around the world have been rising, especially in the face of protracted conflicts, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Australia is one of many nations that have ratified the Refugee Convention, but its record and policies over the past decade in fulfilling its humanitarian obligations to offer international protection to those facing insecurity and persecution has been the subject of international criticism. The latest government proposal begs closer scrutiny.
In the wake of 75 boats and 3532 asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia’s shores since the beginning of the year, the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, announced on the 6 July that she had discussed the possibility of establishing a regional refugee processing centre with JosÃ© Ramos-Horta, the President of East Timor. According to the Australian Department of Immigration, the Australian government “is in discussions with East Timor, New Zealand and UNHCR about establishing a regional processing centre for the purpose of receiving and processing irregular entrants to the region, including those who are intercepted trying to reach Australia by boat.”
This Australian initiative was hastily announced with the aim of neutralising Australian public opinion about asylum seekers and restricting them from reaching the vast shores of Australia. In a renewed hardline approach to immigration, Gillard said, “Arriving by boat would just be a ticket back to the regional processing centre.” The Department of Immigration clarified: “Those arrivals sent to the centre and found to be refugees would be resettled in a third country, but not necessarily Australia. People deemed not to be refugees would be sent home.”
Regional solidarity around Australia’s proposal has been markedly absent and on 12 July the parliament of East Timor passed a resolution unanimously rejecting Australia’s proposal for a refugee processing centre to be located in their country.
Australia introduced a mandatory immigration detention policy in 1992, but it was the conservative Liberal government, under John Howard, which launched the notorious ‘Pacific Solution’ in 2001. Australia subsequently banished asylum seekers to Australian immigration centres on small Pacific Islands, such as Christmas Island, Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was elected with a Labor government in 2007, worked to repair Australia’s international humanitarian reputation, promising a more humane approach to asylum seekers and the closure of offshore detention centres. This policy reform received a setback in April this year when the Rudd government abruptly announced an immediate suspension on the processing of all new applications from asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, for three months and six months respectively.
The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network responded that the suspension was based on a serious misreading of the situations in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan and “undermines the efforts of our organisations and other civil society organisations in the Asia Pacific region who strive to convince our governments of the importance of ratifying the Refugee Convention and protecting the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees in our countries as a matter of good international policy and as a matter of law.” The processing of Sri Lankan asylum applications has now resumed, but the suspension of Afghan asylum applications remains.
Such draconian measures would lead one to believe that Australia is facing an influx of illegal immigrants on a massive and unmanageable scale.
According to UNHCR, Australia received 6,170 asylum applications in 2009, while the United States received 49,020, France received 41,980 and the United Kingdom 29,840. In ‘2009 Global Trends: Refugees, Asylum Seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons’, the UNHCR reported that “Developing countries were host to four fifths of the world’s refugees. Pakistan was host to the largest number of refugees worldwide (1.7 million), followed by the Islamic Republic of Iran (1.1 million) and the Syrian Arab Republic (1.05 million). Pakistan also hosted the largest number of refugees in relation to its economic capacity with 745 refugees per 1 USD GDP per capita, followed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (592) and Zimbabwe (245).” Putting to rest any delusions about Australia being swamped by asylum seekers, “the main destination for new asylum seekers worldwide with more than 222,000 asylum claims registered in 2009” was South Africa.
Such disproportionate responsibility on developing countries is set to continue with Australia’s persistence in focussing on East Timor in its plans for a refugee processing centre in a third country. East Timor had a long and bitter struggle for its independence, achieved in 2002, during which more than 100,000 Timorese died. It is still grappling with the process of national healing and reconciliation and remains one of Asia’s poorest nations with still developing infrastructure and high level of dependence on international aid. John Sinnott, Secretary of the Australia-East Timor Association in Victoria, said he “was appalled” by the government’s announcement, which was informed by a discussion with the President of East Timor, JosÃ© Ramos-Horta, rather than a relevant member of the country’s government. It was “not fair to the government or people of East Timor to not have the issue discussed properly”, he added, and would put the East Timor government in a difficult position as Australia is an important aid donor.
But the crux of the Australian government’s argument for a regional refugee processing centre is that it will effectively deter people smuggling in the Asia Pacific region. The Australian Prime Minister reasoned: “Why risk a dangerous journey if you will simply be returned to the regional processing centre?”
In response to the question of whether a regional refugee processing centre would be likely to diminish people smuggling, Eileen Pittaway, Director of the Centre for Refugee Research, University of New South Wales, Australia, replied: “Not at all. I have worked in refugee camps and what people are telling me is that they are so desperate, the camps are so appalling and the persecution is so bad that they will do anything to get out. Entire extended families will try and put together items of old jewellery, anything of value, in order to send one member of the family on a boat. There is an incredible sense of desperation. Put it this way; I would do it.”
Tougher border control measures is also at odds with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which claims that global efforts to combat migrant smuggling are incorrectly focussed on detaining and deporting individual migrants. It advises that “Unless the organised crime groups who smuggle migrants are dismantled, migrant smugglers will continue to operate and quickly adapt their methods and routes to changing circumstances such as improved border controls or changes in visa regimes. Similarly, where efforts are focussed primarily on strengthening border controls, the effect is often to increase demand for smuggling services to enter countries illegally.”
“The plan to establish a place for processing political asylum seekers is not the way to reduce human trafficking or refugees”, confirmed a spokesman for the Human Rights Working Group (Indonesia), “We see the establishment of the refugee processing centre as a way of transferring Australia’s international responsibilities in the handling of refugees, and we refuse the plan if it is only to divert Australian international responsibility.”
As issues of human rights are more widely discussed across the Asia Pacific and national and regional human rights mechanisms are being developed, such as the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), Australia is failing to live up to the humanitarian standards expected of a nation which ratified the Refugee Convention in 1954.
Clearly the forthcoming Australian Federal Election on the 21 August is an influential factor. However, rather than imposing its neo-colonial will on developing nations in the region and pursuing a proposal that will keep asylum seekers off its shores and do nothing to combat people smuggling, a more convincing national commitment to the human rights of refugees would pave the way for a more constructive regional dialogue.
Australia could begin with taking full responsibility for accommodating and assessing asylum applicants on its own sovereign territory, as other Asia Pacific nations do, and cease its breach of the Refugee Convention in regard to non-discrimination and arbitrary detention by resuming the processing of applications from Afghan asylum seekers. Attention should also be directed to improving the conditions and human rights of those asylum seekers in detention in Australia. Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney claims: “Thousands of asylum seekers remain in detention in Christmas Island, Darwin and Curtin. They are already becoming ‘factories of mental illness’ as the suicide and self-harm incidents become weekly if not daily events.”
In terms of a regional contribution on the issue, “Australia should promote its co-operation for capacity building to Indonesia’s officers or other countries regarding the international responsibilities of each country toward political asylum seekers or refugees”, Human Rights Working Group (Indonesia) suggests, “We think this is more important to do.”
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This post was written by Catherine Wilson