Australia - A refugee policy to condemn not replicate

Australia - A refugee policy to condemn not replicate

12th Oct 2016

Australia asylum seekers face a refugee policy to condemn, not replicate, despite what PM says

At the UN Refugee Summit in NY Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, stood in front of world leaders and claimed his government’s refugee policy was the best in the world. But many people in Australia will tell you that Mr Turnbull’s boasting was misplaced.

Australia’s policy is based on deterrence, building on 15 straight years of fear mongering and demonization of the world’s most vulnerable by Australia’s political elite. In 2001, the ‘children overboard’ affair ushered in a new era of lies, which would come to characterise policy around asylum seekers and refugees. The then-Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, accused asylum seekers of throwing their children off the boat they were on in an effort to manipulate Australian authorities into offering assistance. The asylum seekers were trying to ensure that their children were safe. The boat was sinking beneath them.  A few months prior to this disgraceful episode Mr Howard had refused entry into Australian waters of a cargo vessel, the Tampa, which had rescued asylum seekers whose boat was sinking.

We have spent $A9.6 billion over the past three years on our refugee policy. It consists of an immigration detention system that includes two offshore detention centres on the impoverished Pacific Island nation of Nauru and on Manus Island, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, mandatory onshore immigration detention, and turning back asylum seeker boats (usually to countries where the occupants face persecution, torture and even death). UNICEF estimates that Australia spends at least $A400,000 detaining each individual asylum seeker in offshore detention each year. It costs less than half that to detain a single prisoner. Then there is the disastrous deal with Cambodia, where the Australian government handed over $A40 million in aid to that nation in exchange for four, yes four, asylum seekers being resettled there.

What do Australians get for their money?  A cache of more than 2000 incident reports known as the Nauru Files was recently released by the Guardian newspaper. It details terrifying levels of despair. Threats of self-harm are reported on a near weekly basis. Actual self-harm, including suicide attempts, are reported nearly as regularly. Sexual assault of children is rife, with numerous reports of guards and others touching young girls. One child described how someone had ‘cut me from under’, pointing to the vagina area of a cut out doll to further clarify what had happened to her. Another child reported being handed a sexually-explicit note by a local guard. The note is reproduced in the incident report. In child-like lettering, it invites the recipient to ‘come and kiss my pins’; ‘come and gigey xxx’; ‘come and kiss my botm’.

There have also been deaths. One man died in a riot on Manus Island in February 2014. The inquiry that followed said that the events were eminently foreseeable. Locals entered the centre and assaulted detainees. Non-essential staff fled. Asylum seekers and refugees were on their own, and a 23-year-old asylum seeker lost his life, beaten to death.

Another man detained on Manus Island died of septicaemia in August 2014. A rash on his leg was allowed to fester, in the face of increasingly urgent demands from doctors that he be flown for essential treatment, first to Port Moresby and then to Australia. Resistance and delays on the part of the Department meant that, by the time he finally landed in Brisbane, he was probably already brain dead.

Accounts of rape are terrifying. An epileptic woman was raped in the midst of a seizure on Nauru, becoming pregnant as a result. Rather than respond to such horror with compassion, the Minister for Immigration sought to fly the woman concerned to Papua New Guinea (where abortion is illegal) for the termination that was medically necessary, due to the woman’s mental state and epilepsy. Her advocates were required to get a court order earlier this year to stop the Minister from forcing her to undergo the procedure in a country completely unequipped to meet her medical needs.

The Australian Human Rights Commission last year released a report detailing the physical and psychological impact of this ongoing detention on children. No other country had produced such a compelling document on the impact of detention on children. Of course, no other country could. Australia is unique in the lengths it will go to in its ‘world’s best’ asylum seeker deterrence policy.

Some health workers in these facilities have disclosed what they have seen in an attempt to stop the damage and mistreatment.

Dr Peter Young, a former psychiatrist in detention facilities, has given evidence to the Australian Human Rights Commission that detention causes mental illness. He revealed significant levels of mental illness among children in a report he provided to the Department. His phone records were later reviewed by the Australian Federal Police due to suspicions he was sharing confidential information.

Last year, it became illegal under Australian law for any workers in immigration detention facilities to talk about what they had seen. The penalty is now two years in prison. Doctors have said they are concerned about the impact of this law on their ability to care for detainees.

Australia’s is not a policy to replicate. It is a policy to condemn.


Anna Talbot is the Legal and Policy Adviser at the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

Greg Barns is a barrister, spokesperson for the Prison Action and Reform Group Inc and the Australian Lawyers Alliance. 

The ALA would like to acknowledge that this article has first been published in Independent Australia and the article image was by Ballarat cartoonist John Ditchburn.

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

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Tags: Asylum seekers and refugees Greg Barns Anna Talbot UN Refugee Summit NY