‘Send them Back’: The Truth Behind Australian Refugee Policies

Australia has recently implemented a policy that means anyone who arrives by boat will never touch Australian soil. Instead, they will be taken to a centre in Papua New Guinea for processing despite making a mockery of human rights. These “Boat People”, as they have been dubbed, are left to rot in a veritable ghetto of makeshift tents while Australians can ignore the problem without it weighing on their collective conscience.

Image courtesy of DIAC Images, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of DIAC Images, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Asylum seekers are not people looking for a prolonged gap year with the hopes of getting to surf at some of the world’s most exotic beaches all the while living the laid-back Australian lifestyle with a beer in one hand and a BBQ sausage in the other. Instead, they are men, women and even children whose origins may be traced to all corners of the world, but they all have one fundamental thing in common: they are escaping a living hell in order to achieve a better life filled with opportunities.

The desperation of an asylum seeker is so great that he or she is willing to run the risk of being separated from their families, of losing their life savings or, in some extreme cases, even face the possibility of death in the attempt to reach foreign soil where they can start the process of gaining refugee status.  But sadly, the vast majority of these journeys will be made in vain, since the framework provided by international law is dated and still protects the interests of states rather than those of people. A clear distinction is made between “asylum seeker” and “refugee”, as the former refers to a kind of limbo where the host state has no legal duty to offer any form of legitimate protection until the refugee status has been granted. This is the loophole often exploited by affluent, Western states that were the original creators of these laws.

Australia is just one example of this form of exploitation where any asylum seeker caught navigating Australian waters will be taken to a processing facility on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where they will be resettled once their status has been determined. The slogan of the multi million dollar campaign funded by taxpayers was: “If You Come Here By Boat Without A Visa, You Won’t Be Settled in Australia”. The “PNG Solution” was revealed on the 17th of July by the former Rudd administration, claiming it was aimed at curbing the profits made by people smugglers whose demands can be in the vicinity of thousands of dollars for each person and naturally do not come with a guarantee of success.

Australia may take pride in finding policy measures that are self-proclaimed “solutions” but several problems have arisen. Firstly, families are separated from each other and even children arriving without accompanying adults will be sent to PNG where they are statistically the most vulnerable. Secondly, this policy may not be compatible with international law and might even represent a violation of the rulings made by the UN High Commission for Refugees. And thirdly, Papua New Guinea is one of Australia’s poorest neighbouring islands and its infrastructure will simply not be able to cope with a massive influx of immigrants. The notion of neo-colonialism is not new, but the “PNG Solution” is a blatant attempt for Australia to throw its weight around while acting as a hegemonic power. The ‘Australian’ mentions the $500 million aid program as the main incentive for PNG accepting these coercive measures while even the local inhabitants have shown little support. David Manne, human rights campaigner, summarises the issue by stating this policy “proposes to […] not shoulder the responsibility of protecting refugees but to shift it and to deflect it on to others.”

There is a heavily ironic aspect to this policy on a domestic level. Australia is a nation, much like the United States, that was founded upon immigrants from Europe who were the original refugees. They, much like their modern counterparts, undertook a precarious voyage across oceans in order to start a new life and could therefore be considered as the original asylum seekers. This chosen form of ignorance reflects a darker nature of the West on an international level, given the fact that the world’s richest nations would rather protect their borders instead of collaborating on a strategy that would deal with humanitarian disasters at the source and at the time of the occurrence. The historical pattern of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is no longer applicable in an increasingly globalised world.

These short-term policies seem to be mere band-aids and an attempt to detract from the very real need to find a long-term viable option. In this light, the Australian “solution” can be viewed as an isolated example, yet it has undeniably highlighted a seemingly universal sentiment shared by Western governments who do not care for war torn countries or natural disasters until these people arrive on their doorstep.