Fleeing Violence, Refugees Suffer More in Australian Camps

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


Jim Ven
Jim V1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Keith Fletcher
Keith Fletcher4 years ago

Iona I like your approach but it is probably not going to happen. I have little doubt that there are refugee camps in Pakistan and India for Afghan refugees but the people who leave in boats from indonesia have already bypassed the official route. Sitting around in an official camp with little prospect of resettlement is probably a more dispiriting experience than taking a chance on a boat for people with the funds to procure a passage. Meanwhile politically the Liberals have won political mileage by being tough on unauthorised arrivals and Labor, which probably does not feel as disposed to take a tough line has taken that step to out tough Abbott because it fears the otherwise it will not have any chance of winning/retaining seats in Western Sydney, many of which, surprisingly, have a more than average number of migrant voters.

Ken G is probably right that the Prime Minister is not wedded to the tough measures that he has announced but is driven there by political expediency. Politics is a dirty game, played too often in a dirty manner. It may bring out the worst in politicians and the electorate.

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se4 years ago


Iona Kentwell
Iona Kentwell4 years ago

This whole situation is heartbreaking and very very difficult.There is no easy answer. No one wants vulnerable people dying on the open sea as they desperately reach for a better life. How we stop that from happening is a matter for heated debate by our politicians and around our dinner tables. And while we talk about it more people get on boats in Indonesia and risk everything for a chance of arriving on Australian shores and starting a new life here.
Yes there are people in Australia who lack the data or the compassion to try to understand what could lead someone to be so desperate that they would risk their lives, their children's lives, to arrive in a country they have only heard of. These refugees are called "queue jumpers" but the truth is often there are no queues where they are coming from.There is no way for them to ask for help from official sources. Perhaps the first thing we should do is set up a way for desperate refugees to ask for help and get on these famous queues. Then they will know that there is some possibility of hope and maybe they will get some data about the options for them around the world and maybe some choices about their future.

Danuta Watola
Danuta W4 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Ken Goldsmith
Ken Goldsmith4 years ago

Thanks to Pam W.
@ Keith F. "Government can not control the departure of asylum seeker boats from Indonesia or Sri Lanka". As I wrote, the Howard Liberal Govt. did reduce the flow of boat people to a trickle, with two years having zero. Another year I think there were four people, who paddled a canoe from PNG, so effectively 3 years no illegals. The way to stop the boats is the Howard way, including Temporary Protection Visas, which preclude the illegals from EVER gaining Australian residency, or Family Reunion visas for family members. KRUDD repealed the "Pacific solution", and the flow resumed, is now averaging 100 a day.The Labor govt. does not have the resolve, perhaps not even the desire, to stop it.
"whereas the Opposition, after promoting a 'turn back the boats' policy, now seems to have followed Labor by calling for a refugee 'tent city' on Nauru as well as resettlement in PNG."
The Pacific Solution had refugee camps at both Nauru and PNG, proper buildings, not tents, all demolished as a result of KRUDD Labor govt repealing Howard's legislation.
The PNG "Solution" is a furfy, only designed to fool the gullible until after the election.

The "fire" mentioned by Kristina caused A$60M worth of damage, which will result in detainees in Nauru having to live in tents for months, while the facility is rebuilt.

Sue Matheson
Sue Matheson4 years ago


J C Bro
J C Brou4 years ago

Cannot people be free to move anywhere they can go to? Must people only come to the wealthy world noly to help the wealthy make more money?

pam w.
pam w4 years ago

Thanks to Keith and Ken for informed perspectives! Those of us outside Australia have no more business commenting on the situation there they THEY have criticizing the US's dilemma with massive illegal immigration.


Keith Fletcher
Keith Fletcher4 years ago

Go some way to the right of the author of the article and a fair way left of Ken G and you get a reasonable perspective on the current Australian situation. Australia has a reasonable program to sponsor 20,000 refugees selected from refugee camps every year. It has little problem with asylum seekers who arrive by air. They are screened, and, if not qualified, returned by the airline but the major political parties are involved in political strongman contest with regard to asylum seekers who arrive by sea. (The equivalent is measures undertaken by the US to seal its border with Mexico.) Government can not control the departure of asylum seeker boats from Indonesia or Sri Lanka but cops flak both when those boats sink with loss of life and, with part of the electorate, because boats arriving in Australian waters bring unregulated asylum seekers and constitute a 'threat' to its sovereign integrity. In an attempt to minimise the political threat, the Labor Government has initiated the PNG solution, whereas the Opposition, after promoting a 'turn back the boats' policy, now seems to have followed Labor by calling for a refugee 'tent city' on Nauru as well as resettlement in PNG.