Refugee Policy

CW: Mentions of Sexual Assault, Suicide, Violence

Daniel is a member of the ANU Refugee Action Committee – a group helping to build the social movement in Australia that will close detention centres and force the government to treat refugees with humanity and fairness.


In a Woroni comment article – Issue 7, Vol. 71 – Alex Bainton asserted that offshore processing and boat turnbacks are “unfortunate but necessary” components of Australia’s refugee program. He also argued that human rights abuses, secrecy and violations of international law should be decreased. His article mainly consisted of a comparison between Rudd’s 2007 refugee policy and the current bipartisan one, arguing that because many died under the former, the latter is the only feasible policy.

Firstly, I would like to clarify that these policies are not merely ‘unfortunate’. This word does not capture the atrocities that are occurring. Women are raped, children are sexually abused, and men take their own lives. We also know of lip-stitching, self-harm and suicide attempts by children as young as eight. These are hot, cramped and degrading camps that are wreaking havoc on the mental health of the refugees and asylum seekers there. Since 2014, fifteen young men have died as a result of Australia’s detention policies, most of them at their own hands. Four young men immolated themselves. Reza Barati was bashed to death. Substandard medical care killed Hamid Kehazaei. These are systemic issues that have been repeatedly reported by whistleblowers, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, the Human Rights Commission, the Australian Government and the UN Refugee Agency, amongst others.

These policies are heart-breaking. They are deplorable. They are cruel. This, is the intention.

By the rhetorical logic of the government, Australia’s policy must be cruel to have any impact on asylum seekers, who are fleeing some of the worst regimes and worst situations in the world. A logic of deterrence has no room for cushy, human-rights-friendly centres that hold people in humane conditions – as what kind of deterrence is that?

Furthermore, deterrent policies are not necessary. The premise of Alex’s piece is a false dichotomy that has been an enormously successful: either we set up cruel measures to deter asylum seekers or people will die at sea. But these are not the only two possible outcomes. We could resettle refugees from Indonesia directly, processing applications there, or guarantee resettlement. Because it is unavoidable that some will still come on boats – such as those from Sri Lanka or Myanmar – we need to work to make boat journeys to Australia safer, and set up rescue operations. There are alternative policies laid out by the Refugee Action Committee, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Academics for Refugees, and also a forthcoming document by the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce – any one of these would successfully break the false dichotomy of deterrence or death.

The violation of international law and human rights protections is implicit in the current policy. Boat turnbacks violate the spirit and the letter of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and were found by the European Court of Human Rights to violate not only the European Convention on Human Rights, but also the principle of non-refoulement. The finding that sending asylum seekers to detention on Manus Island or Nauru constitutes ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’ means that Australia violates its international obligations by doing so. Locking people up without trial, who have not committed any crime under any international or domestic law, is a form of arbitrary detention – which clearly undermines international law, and the most basic definitions of justice. Australia is the only country in the world to mandate the indefinite detention of children; in fact, it is the only country that mandates the indefinite detention of asylum seekers.

Policies of deterrence are founded on paternalistic aggression – threatening people with cruelty to deter them from seeking safety here. It is awful that 3-5% of people coming to Australia by boat perish, but there are other ways to help refugees than by threatening them with cruelty – this is not a legitimate way to help them! This logic assumes that refugees are just too stupid to see that they are better off sitting at home waiting for the Taliban to come, than they are seeking safety in Australia. This assumption is wrong. Refugees are not stupid, and they are not better off in their country of origin.

In the words of Julian Burnside, policies of deterrence “might stop people drowning inconveniently in view of Australians at Christmas Island.  But if they do not get on a boat and are, instead, killed by the Taliban, they are just as dead as if they drowned.  The real difference is that our conscience is not troubled by their un-noted death somewhere else.”

Turnbacks and offshore processing can only ever be cruel. They break international law. They persecute refugees. Rather than attempting to rationalise and defend the government’s cruel regime, we need to be fighting to have it dismantled. One day, Royal Commissions will be held, and people will look back at the atrocities of Australia’s refugee program today. I just hope that we will be able to look back on those days knowing we did everything we could to change them.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and emerging. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.