Refugees and asylum seekers

No one wants to return to the days of asylum seekers taking high risks in coming to Australia by boat, however, seeking asylum for protection from persecution is legal under the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory.  

Coalition and Labor governments have nonetheless adopted boat turn backs, offshore processing, coercion, naval Operation Sovereign Borders, secrecy over ‘on-water matters’ and long periods of detention here and in Nauru and PNG. The Coalition has even been reluctant to accept offers from other countries for resettlement and routinely called asylum seekers ‘unlawful non-citizens’’ – a wrong and nasty descriptor designed to turn people against refugees.

Australia’s treatment of people seeking asylum is a national shame. Indefinitely locking people up has a devastating impact on their mental and physical health and is tearing families apart.

Asylum Seeker Resource Centre senior solicitor Rachel Saravanamuthu.

As a responsible nation, we should take a long-term, cooperative, transparent approach and work with neighbours, the High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration to deliver fairer outcomes for refugees.

Chris Simpson, Democrats spokesperson for Refugees and asylum seekers

Our Plan

1.Permanently end offshore processing, close offshore detention centres and bring all refugees in those centres to Australia. Fast-track assessments fairly and properly resource immigration officers.
2.Repeal the mandatory detention provision in the Migration Act and codify the law to prohibit detention of children
3.Work towards ending the practice of forcing back all boats carrying asylum seekers in favour of good faith search and rescue and cooperation with governments in the region for safe disembarkation and paths to protection, consistent with the Refugee Convention.
4.Establish a fairer process for claiming asylum and properly resource immigration processing to allow genuine refugees while turning away economic migrants from stable countries
5.House new arrivals in reception centres for no more than 12 weeks to establish bona fides and health checks, detain only those asylum seekers who are a real risk to society and ensure judicial oversight.
6.Repeal the legislation that denies asylum seekers who do not have a valid visa access to the Refugee Status Determination process and or financial support while applications are processed.
7.Repeal temporary protection visas and restore permanent protection and family reunion.
8.Establish an emergency response intake program in response to crises in for instance Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Myanmar.
9.Forward plan cooperation with low-lying countries in our region to ensure orderly movement of people in response to climate crises.
10.Reserve working rights to our near neighbouring countries and from countries that have major human rights issues or crises.
11.Increase our Humanitarian Program above its current ceiling of 13,750 places (the migration program is set at 160,000 places)
12.End the practice of deporting long-standing Australian citizens if they commit any crime

Australia is arguably in contravention of the UN Refugee Convention which obliges countries to not expel refugees or return them to places where they would face persecution, either in the refugee’s country or a third country.  The Convention also prohibits imposing penalties based on the refugee’s mode of arrival which Australia has certainly done in favouring arrivals by air. Under Article 31 of the Convention, signatories countries cannot punish refugees for entering or living without permission. They must not unnecessarily restrict their freedom of movement.

In 2014, the High Court of Australia narrowly held that turning back boats was permitted under Australian law. Importantly, the judges in that case did not examine the legality of turnbacks under international law.

Under international law, Australia has no right to intercept and turn back boats on the high seas (seas not part of any country’s jurisdiction) without the consent of the country in which the boat is registered. While Australia is permitted to ‘exercise the control necessary’ to prevent infringement of its immigration laws within its waters, that right is limited by Australia’s obligations under international refugee and human rights law.Australia has international obligations to assist those in distress at sea and to protect asylum seekers from refoulement (return to countries where they face a risk of persecution and other serious harms). If Australia turns back boats that are unseaworthy, or returns people to harm, it will be in breach of international law. UN representatives have found Australia to be in breach of these and other international obligations. 

Tha Kaldor Centre, UNSW

The mandatory detention of refugees by Australian governments is arbitrary and many refugees have been held in closed detention for up to 9 years, so far. The length of time in immigration detention is far higher in Australia than in comparable jurisdictions. For Canada it is an average of 12.3 days. Detention is cruel in the extreme with very serious health consequences including death and life-long trauma.

Offshore processing has cost over $1 billion each year since 2013 and caused untold misery and humiliation for asylum seekers. Refugee status determination processing has been inadequate with lengthy delays and lack of judicial review.

Of the 3,127 people who were transferred to either Papua New Guinea or Nauru since July 2013, 1,384 people remain in limbo as of April 2022 – 112 in Nauru, 104 in PNG and 1,168 in Australia. Most people in Australia are on temporary visas, while some remain in community or closed detention. The policy of keeping refugees and people seeking asylum on Nauru and PNG has had devastating impacts on those subject to it. 

The Refugee Council of Australia

As at 31 Dec 2021:
Number of people in closed detention1,489
Number of people in community detention563
Number of people in closed detention because they sought asylum by boat267
Average days in closed detention689
Number of people who have spent more than 2 years in closed detention520
Number of people who have spent more than 2 years in community detention481
Number of children in community on bridging visas1,579
Number of children in community detention172
Chart: Refugee Council of Australia  Source: Department of Home Affairs, Detention and Community Statistics Summary

Australia represents 0.33% of the world’s population, so should take 0.33% of the world’s refugees that need resettlement – some 300,000.

According to the UNHCR, at the end of 2021 over 84 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced. Since then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has added another 10 million. 

Syrian Arab Republic6.8 million
Venezuela4.1 million
Afghanistan2.6 million
South Sudan2.2 million
Myanmar1.1 million

Education for children
Clean water and sanitation
Basic healthcare
Contraception for all who need it
Empowerment of women and girls
Better childhood nutrition
Support for environmental programs
Reaching children in conflict
Preventing child marriage
Peace initiatives

Around 1200 men, women and children were forcibly transferred to Nauru – a tiny impoverished island –  and suffered severe abuse, assaults, unnecessary delays in medical attention and neglect. Many have severe mental health problems and suffer overwhelming despair, self-harm and suicide attempts, according to Human Rights Watch.

Few other countries go to such lengths to deliberately inflict suffering on people seeking safety and freedom

Anna Neistat, Amnesty International.

Asylum seekers were initially held in tents in this hot climate. They were frequently searched and items confiscated, toilets were filthy. 

In 2020 the Coalition Government attempted to ban mobile phones from detention centres but this was rejected by the Senate.

During covid lockdowns onshore detention centers were at or above capacity making distancing impossible and exposure to the virus inevitable. Some asylum seekers have been held in isolation in hotel rooms for two years during Covid lockdowns with no access to fresh air and little contact with others.

Young children have been arbitrarily held in detention. The standards of living in detention centres are poor and children and families are accommodated in tiny rooms and must share facilities with, in some case former criminals.

It is mandatory for a person’s visa to be cancelled if they are found to have a criminal record and they may be removed or detained for an indefinite period and make up about half of the total detention population.

In early April 2022 the Government quietly released 26 refugees from onshore detention around the country leaving 6 people who had been transferred from offshore detention for medical treatment, still in detention for no apparent reason.

Photo: Australian Human Rights Commission, Curtin Detention Centre

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