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Migration & Refugees

What’s Driving the Merciless Asylum Seeker Policies in Australia?

The Australian Human Rights Commission has condemned the government’s asylum seeker detention policies. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

CANBERRA, Australia, Mar 11 2015 (IPS) - As conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere pushed the number of refugees to 13 million last year, the international community is struggling to shoulder the humanitarian responsibility of protecting those fleeing violence and persecution in their homelands.

But in Australia – a wealthy nation, far from major war zones, whose 23 million people enjoy a per-capita GDP of 67,458 dollars – the government has implemented ruthless policies for the roughly one percent of global asylum seekers who hope to find refuge on its shores.

“[Australians] are being systematically conditioned into accepting the cruel treatment of others as necessary and inevitable.” -- Australian writer and social ecologist Isobel Blackthorn
Why, in a country boasting of prosperity and peace, are asylum seekers demonised for seeking safety and freedom? Why have policies resulting in degrading human treatment, amounting to torture, as recently found by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, been implemented with so little public resistance in Australia?

Last year Australia received 4,589 asylum applications compared to 29,009 in France and 51,289 in the United States. Over 37 years Australia received a total of 69,445 asylum seekers, only slightly higher than the 67,400 Germany received during the first six months of last year.

Immigration is a contentious issue in many countries, but Australia is the only one to indefinitely incarcerate asylum seekers in immigration detention centres on arrival.

Those who arrive by sea are transferred to offshore detention centres in the developing Pacific Island states of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. They are refused resettlement in Australia, even if assessed as refugees. More than a year ago the government began turning asylum-seeker boats back at sea.

“There is no greater deterrent to protecting our borders and stopping boats coming to Australia than by stopping the boats physically […],” Scott Morrison, then Minister for Immigration, said to media this past November.

This is necessary to stop people drowning at sea, the government argues, despite the policy threatening the lives of vulnerable people and violating the principle of non- refoulement laid out in the 1954 U.N. convention referring to the status of refugees.

In a report submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council Monday, Juan Mendez, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on torture, concluded that Australia’s “Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment, which has passed both the house and the Senate of Australia at this point, violates the [Convention Against Torture, or CAT] because it allows for the arbitrary detention and refugee determination at sea, without access to lawyers.”

Mendez’s report also found that the indefinite detention of asylum seekers on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, together with reports of ill-treatment and outbreaks of violence, constituted a violation of the human right “to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, as provided by articles 1 and 16 of the [Convention Against Torture].”

In a statement published on Mar. 9, Daniel Web, director of legal advocacy at the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Center, said, “Under international law, Australia can’t lock people up incommunicado on a boat somewhere in the middle of the ocean. Nor can we return people to a place where they face the risk of being tortured. Yet these are precisely the powers the Government has sought to give itself through recent amendments to its maritime law.”

Australia’s mandatory and prolonged immigration detention policies are also “in clear violation of international human rights law”, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) recently reported.

Refugee assessments were suspended more than two years ago to remove advantage to those arriving by irregular means. By mid-2014, approximately 3,624 asylum seekers, including 699 children, were in detention centres.

Long confinement on average for 413 days in harsh living conditions were key factors in 34 percent of children and 30 percent of adults being diagnosed with serious mental disorders. There were 1,149 recorded incidents of serious assault, including sexual abuse, in detention centres, and 128 of children self-harming, the AHRC found.

The government’s recent announcement that children below 10 years will be released into community detention with bridging visas won’t apply to those who arrived before Jul. 19, 2013.

There is recognition by Australian legal and policy experts that “critical to any asylum policy is not whether it deters, but whether the needs of those seeking protection are met.” Organisations such as the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and Refugee Action Coalition also provide refugee advocacy and support.

But a 2010 public survey revealed more than 60 percent of respondents accepted the government’s hard-line stance.

Conditioning the public to accept cruelty

For some experts, even more disturbing than the policies themselves is public acceptance of routine ill treatment of refugees.

“Australia has fought its ideological war with as much moral insanity as would be found in a dictatorship,” the Australian writer and social ecologist, Isobel Blackthorn, wrote in the National Forum last year.

“We are being systematically conditioned into accepting the cruel treatment of others as necessary and inevitable.”

Professor Nick Haslam, head of Melbourne University’s School of Psychological Sciences, told IPS, “Activists have been quick to criticise successive governments while letting the general public off the hook.”

Official references to asylum seekers as “illegals”, suggesting criminality – despite the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stating clearly that “seeking asylum is not illegal and respecting the right to seek asylum includes provision of humane reception” – have not been sufficiently challenged.

There has been little public resistance to the electoral point-scoring of politicians who ignore the ‘push’ factors, such as global conflict, and regale the ‘pull’ factors, that the good life in Australia is attracting an invasion. This theory ignores the fact that the vast majority of asylum seekers head to Europe and the United States.

According to Blackthorn, “Many in Australian society adopt without question the views and falsehoods promulgated by politicians and the media that set out to inflate our sense of entitlement in ‘the lucky country’.”

In the 1990s, Robert Manne, Emeritus Professor at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, identified a “new complacency” in Australia following the demise of communism, when many western leaders believed their actions were now beyond reproach.

During the Australian Liberal Government, led by Prime Minister John Howard from 1996-2007, “[National] self-criticism gradually became confused with un-Australian self-hatred,” Manne wrote in 2011, with social and political passiveness encouraged.

Complacency and parochialism have been exacerbated by geographical isolation and two decades of uninterrupted economic prosperity due to the mineral resources boom.

“Lacking a history that makes it easy to imagine the kind of desperation borne of political oppression and fear, many Australians are genuinely disturbed by the disorderly nature of the refugee scramble for safety,” Manne stated.

Haslam told IPS that public indifference is “driven primarily by the perception that asylum seekers are undeserving opportunists who are seeking entry to the country in an unfair manner” and that many are economic migrants, rather than in need of protection.

In reality, more than 88 percent of asylum seekers between 2008 and 2013 were found to be legitimate refugees.

Blackthorn suggests that the “asylum seeker issue feeds a nationalism that comes dangerously close to the far right”, adding that if the public doesn’t collectively use its democratic right to demand change of their government it is possible that “Australia will fall foul of the sorts of extremisms that have led to so many fleeing their homelands.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

Republish | | Print | |En español

  • Andy C

    Prime Minister Tony Abbott is absolutely correct:

    “I really think Australians are sick of being lectured to by the
    United Nations, particularly given that we have stopped the boats and by
    stopping the boats, we have ended the deaths at sea.”

    First of all it is very clear that this UN body doesn’t actually know what the hell it’s talking about.

    Secondly; To accuse us of “torture” is clearly over the top and a complete lack of perspective.

    Thirdly; To attack us now for alleged torture after stopping a smuggling trade
    that had drowned 1,200 people is one sided, and shows an ever greater
    lack of perspective.

    Lastly; To have a United Nations body dictate how we should feel about our
    policies shows an unmerited contempt for the ability of the citizens of a
    healthy democracy with a free press to decide such things for

    The double standards are amazing, from a body who remained silent when there almost 7000 people and 1100 children in detention, under Labor in 2013. Now there are a total of 3732 people in immigration detention and 224 children and falling.

    Legal academic James Allan … said that even if a more
    acceptable procedure had been used, Australia should pay no attention to
    a report for the UN Human Rights Council that included countries with
    poor records on human rights. The current members of the UN Human Rights
    Council include the Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kazakhstan, Pakistan,
    Sierra Leone and Venezuela.

    Next year, China, Cuba and Russia are among the countries due to take
    seats on the council, followed in 2017 by Bangladesh, Congo, Ghana,
    Nigeria and Qatar.

  • Heil Hitler!

    The gaytheists and fágnostics of Al Qúeerda are no different than the hijab wearing doüche bags of Islam…

    Russians, love them or hate them, have real soldiers on their border and no gay pride marches in their army… imagine that…

  • michael1311

    Im for the current policy compared to the previous Lobor govt open borders which resulted in 1200 deaths including babies and young children. We never want to go back to that. There is only way into Australia and that is legally and thru the front door. Most of these asylum seekers appear to be country shoppers and we dont want them.

  • Southland George

    A national disgrace . Not all Australians or politicians agree with our harsh, punitive and inhumane polices Many “strongly disagree” including church and human rights groups etc. Sadly we have dominant bipartisan policies in this land which fails to heed our concerns and thus fails our ‘so-called ‘democracy. Their is also great ignorance and apathy in Australia in this matter, and on many other issues, including Australia’s appalling treatment of her First Nations’ peoples e.g.,

    Up to 100-150 remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia alone will be closed-this without any consultation with the people. See e.g. . Australia has the highest rates of Indigenous incarceration in the world read , ‘Gulag Territory – how the NT leads the world in indigenous incarceration’ . There is the outrage, national an International calls for the reversal of inhumane and punitive polices that dehumanize and ignore asylum seeking and others seeking refugee but loder calls are needed . Our human rights and International obligations totally ignored! Then, Australia’s Indigenous peoples remain unheard in their calls to self-determination/ treaties-long denied since colonisation of 1788. Hear their cries “we are not invisible” .Do watch this 8 minute video

  • sinnadurai sripadmanaban

    Are they acting on instructions from a super power who gets requests from dirty countries from where asylum seekers go?.

  • sinnadurai sripadmanaban

    UN has become the puppet in the hands of few superpowers. In one instance Secretary General have told that allowing accused(govt) to become judge(holding inquiries) is not in his hands.

  • retona3

    No idea who they are.

  • southtpa

    they are clearly illegal immigrants. if they were asylum seekers they would have applied, been accepted and entered the country with the appropriate papers.

  • Dwain Holmes

    Wish the USA had the balls Austrailia does!!I am so sick of people taking the illegals side!!What part of illegal do You not understand!!Try to get into a lot of the countries these so called refugees come from and see what happens!!Some times these so called refugees have to quit acting like sheep and stand up to these terrorists and not expect every one else to bai9l them out!!
    I say Go Ausrailia , that is the right idea!!You have hard working people who make a wealthy country and then expect them to let in every refugee and bring the cointry down to their home countries level!!
    The middle east and Africa were populated thousands of years before Europeans came on the scene and most are still living like centuries ago!!Yet Austrailia ,Canada,USA,etc are new countries in the over all scheme of things and look at the difference!!Some time these people are going to have to say enough and do as the allies did in the WWs.

  • Andy C


  • Heil Hitler!

    Yeah… Schwanzlutscher…

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