It is ironic that Australia, a nation built on immigration, enforces a strict policy upon newcomers, particularly those from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan where it had a direct hand in causing much of the refugee problem. A far different position from a more welcoming attitude when thousands of Vietnamese Boat People were provided a safe haven.
It is equally incongruous that a government should take such pride in the effectiveness of its draconian approach that it declines to even disclose information and would censure the Australian media network ABC for not toeing the line with the appropriate subservience.
A convicted people-smuggler, serving a jail sentence in Indonesia, is in no doubt that he was assisting genuine political refugees and not as the Australian governments would prefer to describe them, economic refugees.
‘Of course they are genuine, of course. There are too many target killings, too many killings in [some countries]. They have no choice but to run. People fear for their lives’ (smh.com.au).
Ninety percent of Australia's asylum seekers are found to be genuine refugees. The majority of them have experienced trauma from war, violence or the loss of loved ones. Many are victims of gross human rights violations or torture.
Indonesia's foreign minister has called Australia's policy to tow migrant boats back into Indonesian waters inhumane. Foreign minister Marty Natalegawa spoke after reports of a boat carrying 34 people from four countries was found drifting ashore in West Java.
‘Can such an [Australian Prime Minister Tony] Abbott administration policy be called the policy of a government that upholds human rights and humanity?’ he was quoted as saying (www.sbs.com.au).
Australia has established off-shore detention centres on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, run by G4S private security. These are token sovereign countries which are economically and politically dependent upon Australia and have little choice but to oblige their powerful neighbour. Instead of finding refuge in Australia, those who arrive by boat are sent to Pacific island detention centres, with little chance of resettlement in Australia. The most recent government figures available put the number of people in immigration detention facilities offshore and in Australia at 6,101, including 900 children. Australia's Human Rights Commission has announced an inquiry into the mandatory detention of children seeking asylum.
‘These are children that, among other things, have been denied freedom of movement, many of whom are spending important developmental years of their lives living behind wire in highly stressful environments.’ AHRC President Professor Gillian Triggs said. Prof Triggs highlighted a lack of co-operation from the immigration department. ‘I think I'd have to say over the last few months, we've had minimal co-operation in relation to the kinds of details that I need to know, particularly mental health, self-harm and the processes for those that are transferred,’ she said (bbc.co.uk).
‘Asylum seekers are being held in extremely cramped compounds in stifling heat, while being denied sufficient water and medical help,’ Amnesty International Australia's spokesperson Graeme McGregor said, adding that they were ‘prison-like conditions.’
Human Rights Watch, in its 2014 report, said Australia had damaged its human rights record by persistently undercutting refugee protections. ‘Successive governments have prioritized domestic politics over Australia's international legal obligations to protect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. … Too often, the government has attempted to demonise those trying to reach Australia by boat.’
Australia has international obligations to protect the human rights of all asylum seekers and refugees who arrive in Australia, regardless of how or where they arrive and whether they arrive with or without a visa. As a party to the Refugee Convention, Australia has agreed to ensure that asylum seekers who meet the definition of a refugee are not sent back to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened. Australia also has obligations not to return people who face a real risk of violation of certain human rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These rights include the right not to be arbitrarily detained and not to send people to third countries where they would face a real risk of violation of their human rights under these instruments. These obligations also apply to people who have not been found to be refugees.
Once again we discover the reality that there is no such thing as ‘rights’ when a powerful ruling class decides to abrogate its legal responsibilities. When the victims are the weak, the vulnerable, and the helpless, it is all too easy for a callous government to incite populist prejudice and turn genuine human suffering into a cynical vote-catching ploy.