In September 2013, Tony Abbott’s Coalition government was elected, promising to ‘stop the boats’. Abbott won support in part on the basis that the Rudd/Gillard Labor government had lost control of Australia’s borders.
In April 2015, thousands of Rohingya and some Bangladeshi asylum seekers were stranded at sea without adequate food, water or shelter. For weeks, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand refused them safe landing and military agencies towed their boats out to sea. People died at sea or became malnourished. Finally, on 20 May, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to accept the asylum seekers and provide temporary shelter, so long as the international community funds their resettlement elsewhere within a year.
In response to this humanitarian crisis, Tony Abbott said, "I don't apologise in any way for the action that Australia has taken to preserve safety at sea by turning boats around where necessary. And if other countries choose to do that, frankly that is almost certainly absolutely necessary if the scourge of people smuggling is to be beaten."
When asked if Australia would accept some of the asylum seekers, as called for by Indonesia and Malaysia, Abbott said, "Nope, nope, nope... I’m sorry. If you want a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door".
It appears that the majority of the Australian community shares this view. Indeed, a 2014 Lowy Institute poll found that 71% of Australians agree that the government should turn back asylum seekers' boats if it is safe to do so.
Yet Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boat is both inhumane and illegal. In turning back boats we violate the foundation principle of non-refoulement, which requires that countries refrain from returning asylum seekers to the risk of persecution they are trying to flee. In refusing to conduct onshore refugee assessments and instead sending asylum seekers into indefinite offshore detention on Nauru and Manus Island, we subject people to cruel and inhuman treatment that is entirely arbitrary – asylum seekers are not breaking any laws in seeking refuge in Australia.
Australia’s violations of international law and standards of humane treatment are most repugnant in relation to child asylum seekers. As the Australian Human Rights Commission concluded in 2014, the detention of these children is contrary to their best interests and rights. Mandatory immigration detention of children causes mental health disorders, exposes children to violence and sexual abuse, denies nationality or refugee protection, is particularly harmful to children with disabilities, and is ineffective in deterring people smuggling.
Furthermore, Australia’s current policy position towards asylum seekers travelling by boat proceeds from a false position. As Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, has said, "People aren’t risking their lives on boats in order to jump some queue. They are risking their lives because they’re fleeing danger and no queue exists”.
At the heart of these circumstances is a crisis of humanity. Australia’s government, and very many of its people, deny the humanity of the people subject to the brutality of our boat turn-back and mandatory immigration detention policies. It is only by denying these people’s humanity that we could conscience our country’s responsibility for their continued persecution.
For those of us who advocate for a national change of heart, perhaps our primary strategy should be to bring humanity into the debate whenever we engage with it. We will often find ourselves met with the now-cliched line, 'So should we just let them drown at sea?'. Of course the answer is no. But the peddling of this rebuttal by the two major political parties in Australia is cynical in the extreme, for there are a range of humane options available, should future political leaders seek alternative positions on this issue.
Perhaps we could ask ourselves how else Australia could spend the $2.3 billion dollars allocated to detention and compliance programs for ‘illegal maritime arrivals’ in the 2015-2016 budget? Or whether a boost rather than a reduction in our overseas aid could help to generate regional solutions to refugee crises, so as to enable the orderly resettlement of the world’s most vulnerable people in a range of neighbouring states that are each equipped to offer both protection and opportunity? Undoubtedly, as a people and as a nation, we can do much better than we are doing now.
Dr Amy Maguire is a lecturer at Newcastle Law School, University of Newcastle. Amy’s fields of research include international law, human rights, Indigenous peoples, colonialism, refugees and climate change.
Read an article by Michael O’Connor about the recent Tenison Woods Education Centre dinner where Director of the Edmund Rice Centre and President of the Refugee Council of Australia, Phil Glendenning, spoke about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.