It seems Australia is stopping the boats, but at the expense of human rights

Thousands join a pro-asylum rally in Melbourne, Australia (courtesy of Ali Martin - used under Creative Commons Licence, Flickr)

Thousands join a pro-asylum rally in Melbourne, Australia (courtesy of Ali Martin – used under Creative Commons Licence, Flickr)

“This government will not give an inch when it comes to protecting our borders,” says Australian Immigration minister Scott Morrison in a rather definitive sound-bite.  

But the lack of negotiation is not a hard-line response to a threat. The position of the government is not to tackle an impending disaster. Instead the anti-asylum stance – which particularly targets refugees fleeing Indonesia by perilous, horrifying makeshift boat trips across the Pacific – is one promoted to ensure political success, even at the possible expense of thousands of lives of asylum seekers who are simply holding regard for their own life.

In October 2013, this blog covered the story of Operation Sovereign Borders – a seemingly militaristic operation, led by decorated Major General Angus Campbell, under the coalition government of Australia, which aims to halt the arrival of asylum seekers by sea.

The rhetoric is clear, the message direct: stopping the boats is the number one priority.

It’s an aim which some commentators have already hailed as a victory, allowing Australia to move past its days of “lost sovereignty and lawless migration”.

Currently all unauthorized migrants – or ‘illegals’ as the State shorthand seems to suggest – are detained. The detention exists as an intermediary phase whereby assessments can be carried out to determine the legality of a person’s stay. The alternative method to deal with arriving immigrants is to send them back to their homeland.

The detention, while in theory short-term, often transforms into long-term detention, causing great psychological harm to asylum seekers, who remain estranged from humanity with many detention centres constructed away from the mainland. Reports of depression and anxiety are unsurprising and, unfortunately, these symptoms are similar to those experienced under torture – the frightening reality which may have triggered the risky boat journey to Australia in the first place.

IRCT member Association for Services to Torture and Trauma Survivors (ASeTTS) in Perth, Western Australia, provides counselling and mental health services for asylum seekers in the region who are currently in detention. But with the government seemingly succeeding in their clampdown on the “boat people”, ASeTTS may no longer have access to asylum seekers via state detention centres, purely because asylum seekers will not arrive at all. In fact state detention centres could closedown altogether, meaning there will be no support for asylum seekers, many of whom need vital help to move on from experiences of torture in their past.

And perhaps this is exactly what some political figures want – a complete end to the boats, an end to asylum seeking, and an end to the apparent ‘threat’. But what this narrow, vote-pursuing policy also ends is fair human rights treatment. So while the policy is claimed to be a success, it all comes at the cost of the Australian human rights record.

As signatories of various international human rights conventions upholding rights for asylum seekers – particularly the 1951 Refugee Convention – Australia’s government should give fair and proper consideration, screening and treatment to anyone seeking asylum, to identify potential trauma and suffering which forced them to take the decision to leave their country. But even more basic than that, to assure basic protection of human rights, correct and fair treatment of asylum seekers is a must.


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