The Australian Government’s asylum-seeker policy has gone from harsh to incomprehensible. If the center left Labor Party adopted the center right Liberal policy of offshore detention, where will policy turn if the Liberal Party wins the upcoming election? Last month on this blog I questioned Australia’s regional processing and detention center on the small island republic of Nauru; the center has caused political upheaval in a historically tumultuous political environment. This post examines the ‘no advantage’ policy and Australia’s scare tactics to avoid dealing with genuine asylum seekers.
The current asylum-seeker policy of the Gillard Labor Government is composed of recommendations from an expert panel initiated last year. The main recommendation instituted was a ‘no advantage’ policy to deter immigration. The policy provides no advantage for asylum-seekers attempting irregular entry into the country versus those who file an application for asylum in advance. Along with the reinstatement of the Pacific Solution this has led to arbitrary detentions in offshore processing sites with little impact on the number of migrants risking their lives since last August. As a result, the Australian government embarked on an audacious advertising campaign targeting potential refugees, most recently in Afghanistan. However, stemming people-smuggling and preventing irregular migration will not be solved by unilateral actions; Australia’s policies are worsening the plight of asylum-seekers, causing problems for its Pacific Island neighbors, and prohibiting meaningful discussion about why people are moving.
The ‘no advantage’ policy has led tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to be detained with no way to provide for their families and no hope of their claim for asylum to be met. According to the policy, “There is no advantage or benefit and, indeed, there is no guarantee people who arrive by boat will ever come to Australia.” If caught in and around Australia’s territorial waters, asylum-seekers will be sent to Manus Island, Nauru or Australia’s Christmas Island.
Just in time for World Refugee Day on June 20, there were signs that Australia would no longer send women and children to Manus Island for processing. Seventy asylum-seekers originally sent to Manus Island will be sent to Christmas Island, along with 40 family members. However, rather than promote a new, more humane policy shift, a spokesman for the immigration minister’s office said “There is no shift in government policy; families remain liable for transfer for regional processing.” This particular action of moving families is likely due to the recent international criticisms of Australia’s tactics and reports that the number of children in detention camps is at its highest level.
The conditions within detention centers, including the slow pace of (and at times nonexistent) processing, are unfair, unnecessary and exactly what the Australian government wants. In May, the Australian television program SBS Dateline aired an investigation into the center at Manus Island. Journalist Mark Davis confirmed the rumor that because asylum-seekers fear they will be detained forever without the ability to pay debts, provide for their families, or escape the mental torture within the center, they have no hope. Asylum-seekers soon become detainees, and many are continuing to harm themselves and in some cases attempt to commit suicide.
To further strengthen the crude policy, the Australian government maintains targeted advertising in the countries that asylum-seekers are desperately fleeing. Recently, the government spent over $555,000 on more television and radio advertisements in Afghanistan. The advertisements focus on the financial and psychological pain of Afghanis whose relatives were caught during their journey and sent to Manus Island. As part of the International Security Assistance Force, Australia has 1,039 of its own troops in Afghanistan. It seems incomprehensible for Australia to be part of a coalition occupying a country and simultaneously advertising warnings to its people that if they attempt to flee to Australia they will likely die or be imprisoned. This discrimination against Afghan refugees is not new, however. In 2010, Australia implemented a processing freeze on asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, claiming that conditions were adequate in their own countries. The advertisements aimed at individuals and families in developing, war-torn countries accurately reflects the dire situation that refugees will face if they try to seek asylum in Australia via boat; reinforcing an image of the unjust process, though, is not only failing to achieve results but should be a source of embarrassment for Australia.
The government of Afghanistan meanwhile claimed it was not consulted about the content of Australia’s anti-asylum-seeker advertisements. An Afghan official stated that “People will look at this ad and say this man failed, but won’t necessarily think it will happen to them.” The advertisements show a lack of engagement with Afghan communities and a lack of regard for issues faced at home by potential asylum-seekers (including those Australia’s role in the occupation of Afghanistan). If both governments were involved, the deterrence advertising could have greater legitimacy, showing the issues of asylum-seekers are serious for both governments. Instead, Australia is working almost unilaterally to deter what government officials and media have repeatedly called ‘illegals’ and ‘boat people’.
Dr. Khalid Koser predicts that the security situation in Afghanistan will deteriorate in the next two years, leading to inevitably more asylum-seekers heading to Australia by boat. Thus the ‘no advantage’ policy and even opposition leader Tony Abbott’s idea of towing boats back toward Indonesia will be unlikely to stem the flow of asylum-seekers fleeing Afghanistan. Rather, the goals should be to secure Afghanistan, support internal processes such as elections, and encourage international mechanisms for processing and taking care of asylum-seekers before they reach perilous boats.
The severe problems in Afghanistan are, however, not the only issues leading to an increase in people seeking asylum in Australia. Over the last few years, there has been a spike in asylum-seekers traveling via boat to Australia. Already this year from January to mid-May, almost 9,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat. Different world events including the global financial crisis, civil wars and other ‘push factors’ led to this increase. In June 2013 alone, at least 55 asylum seekers have drowned with dozens of additional people lost at sea while headed to Australia. The lack of media access to the detention centers in Nauru and Manus Island prohibits discussions about why people are traveling to Australia as well as the conditions they face upon arrival. As the statistics and harrowing stories show, people continue to flee violence and discrimination in Afghanistan, Pakistan and remain undeterred from either the hazardous journey or arbitrary detention.
Source: Refugee Council. Phillips, J. & Spinks, H. (2013). Boat arrivals in Australia since 1976. Parliamentary Library, http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/BN/2012-2013/BoatArrivals
The Labor government did not anticipate the record number of arrivals this year and underestimated the cost of maintaining detention centers. This lack of planning led to a budget increase for asylum-seekers but at the expense of other programs within the overseas development aid budget. Arbitrary detention places a financial burden on the Australian taxpayer in addition to the financial and psychological pressure on asylum-seekers (including women and children).
Unfortunately the current policy has found support among the Australian public. Prior to the Labor Governments’ reinstitution of the Pacific Plan, in July 2012 Essential Research asked “Do you think the Federal Labor Government is too tough or too soft on asylum-seekers or is it taking the right approach?” Respondents indicated the following: 12% answered ‘too tough’, 11% ‘right approach’, while 60% indicated ‘too soft’. Also prior to the policy change, a United Nations Refugee Agency survey asked Australians if boat arrivals make them “more or less sympathetic” towards asylum-seekers; “32% responded ‘much less sympathetic’, only 8% ‘much more sympathetic.’” Finally, an Essential Research poll asked Australians in August 2012 if they supported the reinstitution of offshore asylum-seeker processing in PNG and Nauru; 67% supported, and 18% opposed. While much of the world is facing a prolonged recession, Australia’s economic boom has not made Australians more amenable to asylum-seekers and new immigrants. Rather, Australians have become more guarded.
On Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru, the national governments are trying to honor commitments they made to Australia in their management of offshore processing and detention centers. At the same time, in facilitating the ‘no advantage’ policy, the states are conflicted in their desire to ensure asylum-seekers are protected and treated adequately. Prime Minister O’Neill of PNG has stated that he wants the asylum-seekers on Manus Island to be able to help the community, work, have a normal sense of life” and be able to move around the country. On several occasions Prime Minister O’Neill claims he has promoted this idea to Australia; ultimately, it is up to Australia how asylum-seekers are managed and cared for on the offshore centers, despite how often the Australian officials claim it is up to the local governments.
Rather than deterring irregular maritime migration to Australia, the ‘no advantage’ policy has put unfair pressure on Nauru and Papua New Guinea and promotes unreasonable treatment of asylum-seekers. As an international process and with scrutiny from the United Nations, Australia’s offshore processing and detention centers should be accessible to journalists who have already helped identify areas where bilateral and international dialogue is lacking. Since the global financial crisis in 2008 and due to increasing violence in the Middle East and parts of Southeast Asia, a record number of asylum-seekers continue to travel via boat toward Australia. Too many continue to drown along the way. For domestic political reasons, there is an overemphasis on the seizure and detention of people in the Asia-Pacific, with not enough regional discussion on push factors or truly regional solutions. Instead of removing protections and supporting arbitrary detention to punish them, Australia should focus on helping to protect vulnerable groups before they are forced to make the journey.