Australia's Refugee Policy: A Collective Failure

Late Monday night, on the 17th of February, Australia’s system of mandatory detention of refugees began to disintegrate. During a second night of demonstrations by detainees at Australia’s centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, a situation developed resulting in the death of one detainee and the injuring of seventy seven others. Very little is clear about the specifics of what occurred. Competing and contradictory accounts have appeared but some key details are emerging. Shots were fired and there was a violent confrontation between security officials and protesting detainees. Over the course of the incident some detainees escaped. According to advice provided to the Immigration Minister, Papua New Guinean police responding to the incident fired shots at least twice. This is the worst incident of violence in the history of Australia’s offshore processing of refugees. It demonstrates the utter failure of the system of mandatory detention and offshore processing.

In recent times Australia’s policies towards refugees have become both fraught and deplorable. Something which should have been relatively straightforward has become one of the great consuming political issues of our times; less a political football than a poisoned chalice. Rather than conducting a reasoned, reflective and considered debate on the formulation of the best possible policies to keep refugees safe while in transit and the best possible policies to uphold and respect the rights of refugees, the act of seeking asylum has been effectively criminalised. Blatantly ignoring the responsibilities imposed upon us by international agreements which were freely entered into, Australia resembles less a progressive liberal democracy and more a fringe dwelling pariah state. Our Immigration Minister, presented with the task of managing a massive enforcement infrastructure incorporating elements of the military, has become more like a minister for national security, responsible for defending our borders.

The key feature of the recent debate over refugee policy has been the number of “boats”, that is the irregular vessels which carry the refugees from Indonesia to Australia. Instead of appealing to the best intentions and altruism of the Australian people, successive governments responded to the arrival of refugees with the blunt tools of coercive policy while building support for their actions by generating fear and antipathy. In short, the Australian government failed in its duty to fulfill its duties under international law.

Success in refugee policy has been measured in the number of boats prevented from reaching Australia. It is true that this particular transit has been dangerous for refugees. A number of boats have sunk and many lives have been lost. It is true that punitive policies towards refugees have been popular among sections of the Australian community. But in the course of voicing our righteous outrage over the attempts of refugees to seek asylum in Australia, while publicly doubting the veracity of their claims to be “genuine” refugees, we forgot that these people were entitled to the same protections as the rest of us. We rationalised our support for these policies as refugees faced indefinite detention despite committing no crime. In the course of being caught up in the fear of refugees we forgot that they were human beings. In effect, we dehumanised them. We failed in our basic duty of citizenship to hold our leaders to account and failed our basic humanity in our lack of compassion for refugees.

Despite the nomenclature used by the authorities, “transferees” are detainees. The detention facilities, whether onshore or offshore, have always experienced episodes of violence. The adverse effects of detention on the mental health of refugees has been established. The adverse effects of the presence of offshore detention facilities on the fabric of their host countries is beginning to become apparent. Apart from the detention facility on Manus Island Australia also maintains a facility on the island nation of Nauru. In July 2013 detainees rioted and much infrastructure was destroyed causing great disruption. The ramifications of the presence of the facility have directly affected the domestic politics of Nauru leading to a judicial crisis in which a magistrate and the Chief Justice (both Australian citizens) were removed and expelled from the country. In the case of Manus Island, the presence of the detention facility has caused great consternation among the local community, the full implications of which have yet to unfold. By placing detention centres in developing countries unsuited to hosting such facilities Australia has placed an undue burden on both Papua New Guinea and Nauru. The adverse effects will likely be felt for some time.

We cannot measure success in policies towards refugees based on the number of boats turned around or stopped. Refugees resort to violence because they have been detained without any concrete hope of timely resettlement. They have sought out Australia because they believe our values place a premium on the protection of human rights. Perhaps they were mistaken. Many of us have stood by as policies have been introduced inimical to values of decency and human rights. The incident on Manus Island is a clear demonstration that the policies of mandatory detention and offshore processing have failed. A new solution must be found, one which upholds the rights of refugees and one which does not drag our nation into disrepute. Future generations of Australians will look back in horror at these policies and we will be condemned for failing to stop them. That failure should now cease.