Australia: The refugee policy chameleon

Large sections of the media focus too narrowly on the 'evils' of asylum-seeking. Gabriella Barnes from World Vision Australia's Field Partnerships team weighs in with a more sensible approach to the national policy debate. A better understanding of Australia's obligations to comply with the Refugee Convention--from a human rights rather than a security perspective--would be a good start. This is the last post in this week's series on asylum seekers.


Asylum seekers travelling by boat have long captured the attention of the Australian public. Emotive images of dilapidated boats bursting with tired and hungry asylum seekers are frequently plastered across the nightly news, fixating the public’s attention on a small percentage of those who declare asylum in Australia.

Regular media coverage has generated a plethora of misconceptions which shape public opinion. The wide range of viewpoints is aptly demonstrated by the SBS series Go Back to Where You Came From. It challenges preconceptions about those who seek to come to Australia by boat by sending six people on the reverse journey of a ‘boat person’. Some participants demonstrated a skewed understanding of the situation, presuming asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat are ‘queue jumpers’, pushing aside hopeful ‘legal’ refugees to steal visas from those who applied to Australia by other means. However, the majority of detainees who seek to come to Australia have been found to be genuine refugees, who are not jumping ahead of any other applicants in the process.

These perceptions are born of a strong media focus on the evils of people smuggling, extortionists and abusers of the system who try to exploit fearful would-be asylum seekers. While there is some merit in this perspective, it detracts from the plight of the asylum seekers themselves, and the reasons why they resort to such drastic measures.

The major issue is that Australia’s international human rights obligations are not widely understood. As a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Australia is legally obliged to provide a certain level of protection to those who apply for asylum. A state is prohibited from penalising an asylum seeker who has entered the territory illegally, provided they apply for asylum without delay and display good cause for his or her illegal entry or presence. The state must then evaluate the merits of the refugee claim, during which time asylum seekers have the right to remain on the territory of the receiving state and receive certain civil, political, social and economic rights.

Numerous policies have been implemented to reduce the number of boat arrivals and resolve the situation. Arguably, certain policies have not been compliant with the Refugee Convention, such as failing to guarantee court access, which is established in article 16 of the Convention, as well as transferring an asylum seeker to a state that is not party to the Refugee Convention, as was the case in Nauru, thus contravening the principle of non-refoulement. Mandatory detention, extraterritorial processing, and the interception and turning back of boats before they reach land, are just a handful of the more severe policies currently being implemented.

These policies have had varying levels of effectiveness, depending on the scale of measurement. The implementation of mandatory detention and extraterritorial processing policies reduced arrivals by boat to 180 in five yearscompared with 12,000 in the two years prior. However these policies were arguably non-compliant with certain aspects of the Refugee Convention in not providing safe and humane conditions of treatment or fair conditions for assessing refugee status. They were therefore were questioned by various human rights bodies, including Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The removal of these policies in 2007 had the opposite effect. Without the added deterrence, the number of asylum seekers increased one hundred fold, placing detention centres under considerable strain. It was at this time that protection requests from boat arrivals surpassed those from plane arrivals.

As a result of this increase and the resulting loss of life from deaths at sea, the ‘turn back policy’ has become increasingly popular, with a focus on stopping the scourge of people smugglers and saving the lives of those who might attempt the dangerous journey. A return to the stricter policies in 2013 has seen a reduction in arrivals and reduced loss of life at sea. However, once again, the calls for a more humane treatment of asylum seekers have increased.

With all this taken into consideration, what stance should the Australian public take? It cannot be denied that turn backs are effective. But is this too limited a view of the situation? While it reduces the burden on the Australian people, one could argue that the refugees are merely being stranded in another country’s territory. This has had an impact on Australia’s standing as a good global citizen. These policies, when suggested as a potential solution for the migration issue in the European Union, were rejected in light of the probable outcry from human rights groups.

This issue is highly complex and attempted solutions do not address all facets of the problem. The policies of turn backs and offshore detention have proven to be highly effective in terms of reducing the numbers of asylum seekers who reach Australian shores by boat, but they do little to assist the millions of vulnerable refugees worldwide. Conversely, a softer approach decreases the deterrence to attempt the voyage, and therefore may result in a significantly higher number of deaths at sea. A more comprehensive approach that considers the issue from a human rights perspective, as opposed to a security perspective, could be the solution.

Gabriella Barnes works at World Vision Australia in Field Partnerships. This article originally appeared on Australian Outlook: Online commentary curated by the Australian Institute of International Affairs.