The sinking of a boat packed with migrants bound for Australia last Wednesday night off the coast of Indonesia has left 11 dead, including at least one young child from Sri Lanka. At least 200 people may have been on the boat whose capsizing, along with reports of abuses and inhumane conditions on refugee camps in Papua New Guinea, has cast a harsh light on the tough new asylum policy announced last Friday by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
Under the new policy, all asylum seekers via boat to Australia will be sent to — warehoused in — refugee-processing centers in Papua New Guinea. Those whose refugee claims are found to accord with the United Nations Convention on Refugees will be allowed to resettle on Papua New Guinea (a former colony of Australia with a population of 7 million, most of whom are subsistence farmers), but will then forfeit any right to asylum in Australia.
Some 16,000 asylum seekers have arrived via boat in Australia since January, most from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Most go through Indonesia and then, often after paying huge fees to smugglers and via overfilled, poorly equipped boats, seek to get to Christmas Island, the part of Australian territory that is closest to Java.
Asylum Policy: Controversial Issue in Upcoming Elections
Asylum policy, a contentious issue in Australian politics for the past twelve years, has emerged as an important issue in the country’s upcoming November elections. Declaring that there is a “national emergency at our borders,” Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition party (which currently is ahead in the polls), has most recently called for a “military solution” for people smugglers. Under his proposed plan, Operation Sovereign Borders, the chief of the defense would appoint commanders to deal not only with smugglers but also with asylum boats and refugees.
Under the new asylum plan (the “PNG solution”) announced by Rudd, Papua New Guinea will receive investment from Australia, an arrangement that has roused criticism that the government is simply giving funds to other countries, at a cost to Australian taxpayers. In dealing with those seeking asylum, Australia has indeed entwined itself in the affairs of other countries. Australians hold positions in a number of departments (finance, police, utilities and planning) on the Pacific Island nation of Nauru, where 125 asylum seekers were arrested after rioting and a fire earlier in July.
The refugees on Nauru — many Iranian, Palestinian, Lebanese and Iraqi – were protesting the time taken to process asylum claims. The poor conditions of the centers were again brought to light last Tuesday after Australian broadcaster SBS ran a report about abuse among refugees on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. The former head of Occupational Health and Safety, Rod St. George, told SBS that rape and sexual abuse between asylum seekers routinely occurred with the full knowledge of asylum staff. He described torture among detainees, some of whom “forced other asylum seekers to sew their lips together” and said that, if the detention center had been “a dog kennel,” Australian authorities would have shut it down.
Hunger strikes and incidents of self-harming have also increased at two of the largest immigration detention centers on Australian soil.
Violations of Human Rights of Asylum Seekers
The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) says that the “PNG solution” could very well risk ”breaching Australia’s legal obligations” and that the conditions at the detention center on Manus Island “may violate fundamental human rights.” But because Nauru and Manus Island are both within Australia’s jurisdiction, the AHRC has been denied access to visit the refugee camps. The U.N. High Commission on Refugees is investigating the legality of Australian’s new asylum policy, which it has called “troubling.”
One thing is clear about the “PNG solution.” This plan and the recent report of abuses suffered by refugees make it all too clear why Australian must have open borders and free movement for all, as Alana Lentin writes in the Guardian. The issue of migration otherwise dehumanizes refugees as “others” and also becomes “an expensive, largely performative, and ultimately futile exercise in securing borders.”
The one thing that many Australians seem to agree on is that boats crowded with people fleeing violence and poverty will keep on coming. Refugees should not be criminalized, detained in camps and deported but given a chance to work to build a better life and certainly not to suffer more than they already have.
Help support those seeking asylum in Australia and sign this petition encouraging Kevin Rudd to give these individuals the treatment they deserve.
Photo via Takver/Flickr