‘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.

3 Replies to “‘Send them Back’: The Truth Behind Australian Refugee Policies”

  1. Far from revealing ‘the truth’ of Australian refugee policy, you are spreading misinformation by failing to acknowledge that there has been a change in Australian border protection policy following the outcome of the September 7 Federal Election.

    Aside from a minute reference to the “former Rudd administration”, your article doesn’t reflect the Coalition government’s approach to border protection at all, centred around providing priority processing to the most vulnerable overseas refugees, turning back boats to Indonesia before they enter Australian waters (where safe to do so) and the re-instatement of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) so that legitimate refugees may be resident in Australia until their home country is deemed safe.

    Furthermore, your demonisation of the Australian Government fails to recognise the full impact, history or intent of their policy. The Howard Coalition Government introduced offshore processing as part of a regional Pacific Solution in 2001 as a disincentive for asylum seekers to risk their lives through a dangerous voyage at sea. It also acted as a stopper on the illegal people smuggling trade, whereby so-called ‘economic refugees’ skip the legitimate immigration queue by paying large sums of money to people smugglers and burning their identification documents. These individuals could afford to leave their home nations and many have lived in safe countries before paying thousands of dollars to make the journey to Australia. Under the UN Refugee Convention, an asylum seeker does not get to pick and choose a final destination country. Rather it is the responsibility of the first safe nation to which these people flee to provide them with safe harbour.

    The Rudd-Gillard Labor Government dismantled this effective deterrent by ending offshore processing from 2007, with more than 40,000 illegal arrivals in Australia until May 2013. Most of these were released into the community at the cost of a place to a person waiting for refuge in a UNHCR camp overseas. This was not only unfair, but also unsustainable. Australia does not possess the capability to effectively provide welfare, English lessons, housing, education and medical expenses for this flood of illegal migration. Nor should the Australian taxpayer be expected to shoulder this cost.

    The Rudd-Gillard Government’s PNG solution was an attempt to backtrack on this dangerous and expensive policy position, following their earlier disastrous ‘Malaysia People Swap’ deal and former Prime Minister Gillard’s proposed ‘East Timor Solution’. We know that more than 800 people lost their lives at sea attempting to make this arduous crossing and it is entirely humane for the Australian Government to take steps to halt this trade in human life.

    The PNG solution was certainly flawed, in that it was not a long-term solution, and lacked a lengthy commitment from the PNG Government. However in contrast to your insinuations, it was far from inhumane. Australia has an excellent human rights record and all efforts have been expended to house asylum seekers in appropriate conditions at great financial cost to the nation.
    Additionally, your claims of “neo-colonialism” are not backed up with any evidence. The bilateral agreement entered into with the government of Papua New Guinea involves the investment of millions of Australian dollars in infrastructure in the nation and was not forced upon PNG, far from it – the government of a democratic nation willingly entered into it, to their great financial benefit. For details of the two nations’ commitment to human rights, including PNG’s efforts to amend its constitution to comply with the refugee convention, I suggest you take a look at the text of the agreement, specifically paragraph seven.


    Your final statement is also glaringly oblivious to the millions of dollars invested each year the Australian Government’s overseas aid programs, administered by AusAid, let let alone Australia’s contributions to overseas peacekeeping efforts.

    You are to be commended for your passion and interest in foreign affairs. However I must fiercely disagree with the argument you have espoused and I hope you endeavour to take my points on board.

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