human rights news & views

No evidence that harsh policies deter asylum seekers

Many times over the past dozen years or so, I’ve wondered if we Australians forget, in the hysterical public discourse about asylum seekers, who they are.

They are people fleeing serious harm. People for whom we would have compassion, in the normal course of events, and seek to help. Instead, we, as a polity, treat them with harsh inhumanity.

I have never understood why asylum seekers are such an intense focus of debate in Australia. After all, refugees make up only 7% of our annual intake of migrants. Taken soberly and in context, they should rarely make the headlines.

And yet Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers has made notorious headlines around the world.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has determined no fewer than 11 times that Australia’s policy of mandatory detention of undocumented asylum seekers is a form of arbitrary detention and therefore a violation of human rights. And yet successive Australian governments have ignored these repeated, unambiguous rulings. We are currently keeping around 6,000 people in immigration detention – it is arbitrary, indefinite and inhumane.

While there is ample evidence of the harm detention does to asylum seekers – already traumatised and vulnerable – there is no evidence that off-shore processing (on Nauru or wherever) or mandatory detention or temporary protection visas deter people from coming to Australia to seek asylum.

Moral philosophers condemn the use of people as a means to an end. If Australia is punishing asylum seekers escaping war and terror into order to ‘send a message’ to people smugglers, or even to other asylum seekers, that is immoral.

The prospect of trading 800 of our boat-people for 4,000 refugees languishing in Malaysia — and paying for all the Malaysian government’s expenses in the process — can only be understood in these terms: using people as objects in a misguided attempt to ‘turn back the boats’.

And make no mistake, turning back boats, discriminating against people who arrive without documentation and all other fiendish techniques intended to punish and deter asylum seekers from arriving in Australia and applying for refugee status are illegal. There are no queues to jump, no such thing as illegal migration when you are fleeing persecution.

Refugees have a right to cross borders however they must and apply for protection in any country that has signed the Refugee Convention. We have an obligation to receive and protect them and to respect their human rights while their claims are being determined.

We are, in truth, obliged to accept all who make legitimate claims on our protection – setting quotas or arbitrary limits on the number of refugees we accept violates the Refugee Convention, the purpose of which is to guarantee safety to all who need it.

How many do we accept? Currently, fewer than 14,000 per year – and the great majority of those – over 97% – arrive not by boat, but by plane.

‘Boat people’ is, I believe, a term coined in Australia, reflecting a paranoia about our vast coastline, and yet the facts just don’t support the fear. Australia is host to 0.2% of the world’s refugees. In terms of our population and wealth, we rank 77th in the world for refugee intake. Yes, there are 76 countries in the world taking more refugees than Australia. We are paranoid.

It’s true the number of boat people arriving in Australia has increased in the past few years. Amnesty International attributes this to a “well documented spike in conflict around the world, which has led to more asylum applications globally.” It has little to do with what the Australian government does or doesn’t do. Too rarely are our debates based on fact or our policies on evidence, much less on international human rights law, moral principle or compassion.

It’s World Refugee Day, and a special one at that, being the 60th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention. In those years Australia has been the fortunate recipient of a great many refugees from Europe after the tumult of World War Two; we have been immeasurably enriched by people fleeing notorious conflicts in Asia and Africa and, in the 21st century, refugees from wars we ourselves have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. How many refugees do you suppose have called Australia home in all those 60 years?  Millions?  No, about 750,000.

Let’s redouble our efforts to combat unfounded fears and misinformation, condemn our leaders' use of vulnerable, innocent people for political gain and make Australia a place of welcome for refugees.

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