On the 19th July 2013, the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd unveiled a new resettlement arrangement for refugees and asylum-seekers coming to Australia by boat, in what he called an attempt to crack down on people smugglers and prevent further tragic deaths at sea.
The new “hardline” policy means that from now on, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as a refugee. Instead of being processed on Christmas Island, all asylum-seekers arriving by boat will be sent to Manus Island or elsewhere in Papua New Guinea for assessment of their refugee status. If found to be a legitimate refugee, they will then be resettled in PNG or another third party country, other than Australia.
The new arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea has caused a great deal of controversy on the public forum. While the primary motive for the new arrangement may well be to put people smugglers out of business, there is a concern that this was a political point scoring tactic, with the announcement coinciding with the upcoming elections.
Speaking with Sara Saleh, an Amnesty International Australia Refugee Spokesperson, I asked what Amnesty’s activists thought about the new resettlement arrangement. In short, “it legally, financially and economically doesn’t make sense. Australia is a regional leader in human rights, it’s one of the wealthiest countries in the west, and yet it’s outsourcing its own problems for another country to deal with.”
The new arrangement has many legal implications.
Many refugees who flee their home wind up in countries in South-East Asia such as Indonesia, who have generously hosted large numbers of refugees for decades. However, nearly all of these countries are not signatories to the UN Refugee Convention and lack a strong legal framework to protect refugees and uphold their human rights.
Across the pond, Australia is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and, as such, is legally obligated to follow a protocol to ensure that refugees are protected and resettled. Under international law, asylum-seeker boats that are intercepted by Australia are Australia’s responsibility and signatories must not discriminate against any asylum-seeker based on the method of their arrival – even by boat.
But the Australian Government is singling out refugees arriving by boat, as they are sole victims of the new resettlement arrangement. By international law, that is illegal.
The Government is also outsourcing its obligations to third countries that are far less able to provide durable solutions for refugees than Australia itself. According to the World Bank, over 50% of residents in Papua New Guinea live on under $2 a day, and a staggering 61% live without access to clean water. Australia is second in the UN’s human development index. PNG is 156th.
PNG is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, although they have seven “reservations” on the convention, including no commitment to allow rights to work, public education, housing or freedom of movement. The Australian Government assures us that PNG will take steps to withdraw these reservations, but how and when remains ambiguous.
The spotlight on Australia gained even more momentum last week after an UN body found Australia to be in breach of its obligations under international law, committing 143 human rights violations against 46 refugees who had been detained indefinitely for four years without justification. As the only western country with a policy of mandatory, indefinite detention of asylum seekers, Sara Saleh says urgent action is required.
“These violations are an embarrassing moment for Australia. The Government cares about its reputation on the global stage so it’s going to have to clean up its human rights policy fast. The outcome [after the UN’s findings] remains to be seen.
We are finally seeing a positive increase on intake in Australia, but we need to de-link the association that boat arrivals are ‘illegal’. Under international law, everyone has a right to seek asylum, it doesn’t matter whether they arrive in Australia by boat or plane.”
Aside from the legality of Australia’s policy, there are multiple other concerns with the new arrangement;
With the prime aim being to crack down on people smugglers, there is no evidence to suggest that the new off-shore arrangement will deter them at all. Refugees will still board boats out of desperation, to escape the persecution and violence that they are seeking refuge from. So while the cost to Australia could reach billions of tax-payers money to operate off-shore processing centre’s, resettle refugees in other countries and pay for the roads, naval bases and universities that have been promised to PNG in return for taking the refugees in, there is no grounds to suggest that this arrangement is any more, or even as efficient as a local solution would be.
There are further concerns regarding inhumane treatment of children and other individuals on Manus Island and PNG. While a minor arriving by boat may desperately be trying to reunite themselves with family already settled in Australia, the rules dictate that they too are sent to PNG and never resettled in Australia. There have been mixed messages on this subject from PNG authorities but, for the foreseeable future, the welfare of minors being detained in PNG will be an ongoing concern while the ‘no advantage’ policy remains in place.
Likewise, there are many asylum-seekers fleeing their home countries after being persecuted for their sexuality. With homosexuality being condemned in PNG, and punishable by lengthy prison sentences, it remains to be seen whether adequate control measures will be set-up in the processing centre’s to allow for fair assessing of a person’s refugee status, and to ensure they are resettled in an appropriate country where their human rights will be upheld.
Thousands of petitions have been signed worldwide to lobby other countries into putting pressure on Australia to change the policy. But what are they hoping to achieve?
“Off-shore processing comes at an extreme cost, and is inhumane to asylum-seekers. PNG doesn’t have the proper infrastructure to take on Australia’s responsibilities. We would like to see an end to off-shore processing and a genuine regional solution put in place, where countries share responsibility and work towards increasing refugee rights in the region”, says Sara Saleh.
“Nine out of ten asylum-seekers are found to be genuine refugees. They are spending too long waiting in countries that aren’t signatories to the refugee convention and having their human rights violated.
We want Australians to be educated on this topic, which is a main focus at Amnesty International Australia through our outreach programs and petitions. We want everyone to understand that “boat people”, under international law, are not “illegal” and the concept that they are “queue-jumpers” is a fabricated myth.
Turkey takes in more refugees in a day than Australia takes in a year. We are not asking Australia to open its borders – the figures are minimal – we are talking around 1% of the population. These people want to be a part of the community, and they want contribute to Australia’s economy and society.”
The Australian Government’s new quick fix solution does nothing more than move refugees out of sight, out of mind. Don’t bury your head in the sand. Educate yourself, and stand up for human rights.
Special thanks to Sara Saleh of Amnesty International Australia for providing her comments and opinions to assist with this article.
Written by Victoria Garside