Guilty by Association – Australia’s Lingering Torture Island
Australia’s strict immigration policy about refugees who arrive by boat has been subject of intense internal debate and scrutiny since Howard’s Tampa incident in 2001. Parliamentary elections have been won and lost due to this issue alone, and despite heavy rhetoric from all Australian leaders since 2001, the truth behind current policy continues to evade most media organisations.
With the recent election of Mr Trump as the president of the United States, the Australian immigration issue once again became subject of intense international scrutiny and debate. This was not the first time since Tampa that Australia’s boat arrivals were subject of intense media scrutiny. Like many other incidents before Tampa, Australia has been subjected to waves of arrivals by boat ever since the continent was invaded and settled by European settlers.
Generally speaking, immigration law and policy, asylum seekers and intake of refugees are hotly debated political issues which have determined election outcome in Australia in the past. It is a general rule that when an issue is highly politicised, the victim of the issue is always the truth. This article seeks to answer a few questions with regards to Australia’s current immigration policy: what makes the arrival of asylum seekers by boat so special in recent years and why are asylum seekers who arrive by boat so infamous for doing so. This article further explores the current policy with regards to the detention of asylum seekers and refugees in Nauru.
Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are infamous simply because they arrive by boat. There is nothing else to it. They are simply guilty of arriving by boat because they arrived by boat – and nothing else. There are two major reasons why the asylum seekers in Nauru and Manus continue to linger there and why no solution has been found to date.
The first reason is the misconception and misinformation with regards to laws and facts surrounding people seeking asylum in Australia, and the second, being the over-politicisation of immigration law and policy and in particular the issue of asylum seekers who arrive by boat to Australia. Despite contrary popular opinion, it is not illegal to seek asylum to Australia, nor is it illegal to arrive without a valid visa for the purposes of seeking asylum. Every year, many asylum seekers arrive in Australia by plane and seek asylum, yet the Australian government does not make an issue out of it and the matter is now up for public scrutiny.
Australia’s current immigration laws make it perfectly legal for a person who fears harm from their country of former habitual residence to seek asylum on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. According to Australia’s own laws it is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia. So where did the notion that ‘seeking asylum in Australia is illegal’ originate?
The answer to this question lies in the 2001 Tampa incident and the origins of the phrase, when the then Prime Minister of Australia coined the boat arrivals as ‘illegal immigrants’. Despite the factual oxymoron in the coining of the term, nothing was done by rights groups, legal experts or the successive Labor governments to correct this misconception and it soon became popular opinion and indeed a misconceived fact that those who arrived by boat in Australia to seek asylum were ‘illegal immigrants’. The term, Illegal Maritime Arrivals replaced the phrase ‘Irregular Maritime Arrivals’ in the Department of Immigration’s vocabulary and many asylum seekers themselves were led to believe that their arrival to Australia was ‘illegal’.
Following the 2013 elections, the Coalition government, commenced a vigorous campaign to stop the arrival of boats to Australia. The Coalition government utilised two tactics in order to stop the arrival of boats to Australia. Under the guise of stopping drownings at sea, the Coalition government took advantage of a policy which had been put in place by the Labor government prior to the election to transfer asylum seekers to offshore detention centres in the Pacific Ocean. The second method, involved the pulling of boats back to international or Indonesian waters in order to avoid the boats reaching Australian territories.
Despite the success of the campaign to stop the boats, the maintenance of these two policies have come at a heavy price to Australia’s reputation in upholding human rights and the rights of the children. The planning, implementation and the continued use of the policy to maintain the offshore detention centres has been and will continue to be a major blot in Australia’s reputation. There is no doubt, that in the future there will be parliamentary and fact finding missions set up to make full enquiries into the extent of abuse, corruption and absolute disregard for the rule of law. The policy will also be a perpetual blemish on Australia’s long history of abuse of immigrants to the country.
With the extent of the news reports and leaks covering the abuse and the torture that the current asylum seekers in Nauru and Manus Islands had to endure, it surprising that the current policy against the remaining asylum seekers and refugees has continued to be strictly enforced by the Australian government. The enduring strict policy cannot be attributed to anything else other than lingering negative public opinion against asylum seekers as a result of years of misconceived and misrepresented legal facts and arguments by the successive Australian governments since 2001.
Indeed it is extremely surprising that despite the extent of the reports about the abuse, the Australian public remain unsympathetic to the plight of the refugees and asylum seekers on the Islands of Nauru and Manus.
The Island of Nauru for example, which is home to a local population of about 10,000 is home to a number of refugees and asylum seekers, which consists of unaccompanied minors, single adult females, families with children and single adult males.
Since the reopening of the detention centre in 2012, the Australian government has continued to confine asylum seekers in detention centre facilities despite the fact that the government was aware at the time that Nauru did not have the capacity or the logistics to confine people. From the very outset, asylum seekers who were kept in detention on the island suffered from constant lack of water, including drinking water, access to medical facilities, proper shelter, food or basic needs.
Asylum seekers were also subjected to abuse, including physical and sexual abuse against women and children by the local Nauruans, Australian expatriate staff, and the international staff who were stationed there as guards, medical personnel, including nurses and doctors and other subcontractors placed there for the purposes of the upkeep of the facilities.
The facts surrounding the extent and the level of abuse has been confirmed by multiple sources, despite extreme vetting of individuals entering the country and the blanket ban on the media by the Nauruan and Australian governments. The Australian government has attempted many times to quell the amount of leaks coming from the Island, including reverting to capricious legislations that threatened imprisonment on whistle-blowers.
Despite the extent of the abuse and the Australian government’s own attempts to hide the facts from appearing in the Australian and international newspapers, the Australian government’s own enquiry into the alleged abuses in 2013 found extensive cases of abuse including sexual abuse at the detention centre and on the Island.
The Current Situation
Australian botched deal with the United States to exchange asylum seekers in exchange for refugees from the America’s is in tatters with the unexpected Trump presidency and his infamous telephone call with the Australian Prime Minister. If there is anything to go by, the unpredictability of the deal has led to further insecurities for the stagnating refugees who are desperately awaiting good news in order to be free of their ordeal.
There are a number of issues however that need to be addressed here: Australia does not wish the refugees to enter Australia out of fear that this may lead to further boat arrivals; yet the government has continued the rhetoric that this policy is implemented to ‘avoid drownings at sea’. Despite the Australian government’s so called humanitarian concern, refugees and asylum seekers stranded on the Island have stated on a number of occasions that they wished they would have drowned at sea because being stranded on the island is much worse. Indeed, Australia’s policy and lack of care for the refugees and asylum seekers is directly in contrast to their rhetoric about the reasons why they have attempted to stop the boats from arriving.
The level of abuse both within and outside of the detention centre on Nauru is systemic and much more deeply rooted than that which is reported in the mainstream media. Should the asylum seekers or the refugees ever arrive in Australia, it is possible and highly probable that they may be able to lodge and win a class action case against the Australian government with compensations ranging to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Another aspect of this situation is the current mental and physical health of the refugees and asylum seekers on the Island. Due to the prolonged and excessive detention, most, if not all of the asylum seekers have developed some form of physical or mental ailments which would be a heavy burden on any country in which the refugees would eventually reside. There have been many instances of self-harm including two infamous instances of self-immolation directly as a result of the deterioration of mental health of refugees who have been kept on the Island.
Australia Department of Immigration has continued to actively ignore medical opinion including extremely compelling medical opinions for medical evacuations; often intervening at times at the very last moment to transfer the refugees or asylum seekers to Australia or Paua New Guinea for medical treatment. These extreme measure have resulted in continued medical issues and sometimes in the death of asylum seekers or refugees.
Lastly, the financial cost of the maintenance of the two facilities has been extremely unconscionable to the Australian public and the tax payers. It has been reported that the cost of the maintenance of the detention centres in Nauru and Manus has been much more than the original cost reported to the Australian public. The actual cost has ballooned as a result of bad management of the facilities and incompetence of successive immigration ministers who have preferred to maintain the strict policy at the expense of the taxpayers. Conservative estimates have put the cost of each detention centre at AUD$1billion annually since 2012.
The news of the cost of the upkeep of the detention centres comes at a time when the government was considering measures such as increasing the GST and raising the cost of medical fees in order to be able to maintain the detention centres.
Australia should plan to find a rapid resolution to the issue of the asylum seekers especially as the deal with the United States look increasingly likely to falter. The asylum seekers and refugees continue to remain on the edge as they are hopeful that they would be leaving Nauru for the United States in the very near future. However, should the deal with the United States falter, Australia will likely face a wave of unrest and possible extreme backlash by way of protests and suicide attempts from the asylum seekers and the refugees. It would be in the best interest of Australia that a speedy resolution to the issue is reached before further disaster which would irreparably damage Australia’s international reputation would strike again.
Mr Ramtin Towdiee
Registered Migration Agent
Mr Ramtin Towdiee is a Solicitor and Migration Agent in Parish Patience Immigration Lawyers in Sydney.