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Election will come and go, but refugees still victims of 'border politics'

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Asylum seekers and refugees were inhumanely held in Melbourne's Park Hotel (image via YouTube)

Regardless of the Election result, Australia must treat refugees with humanity and dignity, writes Dr Nilanthy Vigneswaran 

THE LAST COUPLE of months has marked the sudden release of refugees held in immigration detention facilities on Australian soil. Detained in "alternate places of detention" (APODs), such as hotels, around Australia, they were initially transferred in 2019 from Nauru and Papua New Guinea for medical treatment under now-repealed Medevac legislation.

The detention of Novak Djokovic, in the Park hotel, Melbourne, threw an international spotlight on the plight of those who remained. Some had been held indefinitely for periods of up to nine years.  

With a Federal Election looming, six refugees remain in APODs. It is welcome, that in the space of a mere two months, 50 refugees have been granted their freedom. It is less welcome that their releases have occurred with minimal to no warning to arrange access to appropriate community support services.

Many, on release, were left unclear as to what their new status was, and whether they would be permitted to remain in Australia. Most importantly, the somewhat arbitrary nature of their releases has highlighted the arbitrary nature of their detention in Australia’s mandatory immigration detention system for almost a decade.

Since 2012, Australia has re-implemented offshore processing, a regime that mandates that asylum claims, security and health checks are conducted in another country. In the last nine years, it has seen 4,183 individuals sent to Pacific offshore processing centres in Nauru or Manus Island. As part of "Operation Sovereign Borders", boat turnbacks, the militarised maritime interception of vessels to be returned to their country of departure, have been in place since 2013.

Shrouded in secrecy, the public and even the Parliament have restricted access to information regarding the nature and number of turnbacks. We are aware of at least 873 asylum seekers who have been turned back since 2013. "Enhanced screening" or assessments at sea have been conducted for Sri Lankan and Vietnamese asylum seekers, denying them the chance at procedural fairness in lodging a formal protection claim.

Australia’s history of human rights abuses in offshore detention is well documented. 14 deaths have occurred on Nauru and Manus Island. Multiple cases of self-immolation and self-harm in the context of deteriorating mental health have been reported.

Sexual and physical assault have been perpetrated, sometimes against children. Delays in medical treatment being instituted and transfers to tertiary healthcare facilities have resulted in preventable deaths.

Detention facilities are managed by privately contracted companies such as Canstruct International and Serco, to which the Government recently granted a $715 million contract extension.

From 2013 to 2021, the Refugee Council of Australia estimates $9.65 billion has been spent in processing asylum seekers offshore. It costs just over $4 million to hold one person per year on Nauru; it costs just over $4,000 for that person to be held in the community in Australia whilst their asylum claim is being processed.

The Australian Government continues to assert that both offshore processing and boat turnbacks have been successful deterrence strategies to people smugglers. They claim they have reduced deaths at sea.

The data in fact supports that the biggest increase in arrivals of asylum seekers by boat happened in the year following the commencement of offshore processing. Even if entertaining the notion that boat turnbacks have been subsequently effective, one must ask: effective for whom?

The issue of deaths at sea has simply been moved out of sight. There have been multiple reports of Australian naval vessels returning boats to the edge of Indonesian waters, or of asylum seekers being returned to countries like Vietnam and Sri Lanka and facing imprisonment, despite reassurances from those respective governments.

There have been accounts of asylum seekers being returned to their home country only to reattempt the perilous journey and seek refuge in another country. In addition to contravening international human rights law, both arms of Australia’s strategy do not address a key truth echoed by former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser: for as long as there is war and persecution, there will be those that seek safety at any cost, via any means possible.

The UK, prompted in part by the perceived success of Australia’s punitive border policies, looks to adopt offshore processing in Rwanda. Without engagement in meaningful regional solutions aimed at search and rescue, upholding non refoulement principles and comprehensive fair assessments of asylum claims onshore, Australia’s model cannot be claimed as a success.

Australia’s refugee policy has continually oscillated over the last few decades, morphing into the game of border politics that we recognise today.

In the 2001 Federal Election lead-up, the Howard Government refused to grant entry to MV Tampa, carrying more than 400 rescued asylum seekers entry to Australia.

Allegations that asylum seekers had attempted to throw their children overboard (now recognised as false), have become embedded as a historical turning point in the politicisation of asylum seekers. The appearance of tough national borders and protection of Australia’s national security interests have suited the governing refugee and migration policies of both major political parties over the past decade, until it didn't.

Sensing public dissent and protest, at the detainment of children in Nauru, their long-delayed mass release was quietly authorised by early 2019. After nearly a decade of declining New Zealand’s offer to settle 450 refugees detained in Nauru over three years, the Australian Government finally accepted within the last two months, begging the question of why now? 

International media attention on refugees in APODs following the detention of Novak Djokovic appears to have in part contributed to securing the freedom of all but the six medevac refugees who remain incarcerated. Without clear reasoning behind either the release of the others or their lengthy detention, the haphazard nature of the Federal Government’s actions can be interpreted as a hasty pre-election ploy.

Both major political parties and the voting Australian public appear engaged in a game of border politics that is reflexive to the precarious public opinion of refugee and asylum seekers. Successive governments introduce domestic refugee and immigration policy that is often backed by misinformation and campaigns aimed at "othering" refugees and asylum seekers, which further influences public attitudes. 

It also fails to address the scale of global conflict and publicly examine the reasons why one would seek asylum, and hence engage Australians in a robust humanitarian reflection. In the face of multiple refugee crises evolving globally, particularly in Ukraine and Afghanistan, our human rights record on an international stage has been damaged.

In the case of Afghanistan, Australia’s response, to increase the refugee intake only recently to 16,500 over four years when many advocates have called for 20,000 additional places since August of last year, does not appear commensurate to Australia’s 20-year military involvement in the region.

As we head to the polls in less than a week both the Coalition and the Labor Party continue to uphold offshore detention and boat turnbacks a key policy. The subtle differences in their promised approaches are not entirely insignificant. Labor has stated they will increase the number of humanitarian places to 27,000 per annum by 2025 (capped at just over 13,000 currently by the Coalition) and end temporary protection visas, which denies holders various rights.

They have also committed to reducing lengthy periods of detention, to a maximum of 90 days. Neither party is willing to legislate against the detention of children, though Labor has indicated they will appoint an independent children’s advocate to represent the interests of children seeking asylum.

The Australian Greens, however, have pledged to end offshore detention and boat turnbacks and engage a royal commission to investigate Australia’s existing system of immigration detention.

How scrupulously Australians take note of these proposed policy differences remains yet to be determined.

As we count down the days to an election result, one can only lament that without significant change, refugees and asylum seekers will continue to be used as pawns to gain electoral favour by our major political parties. Issues of fundamental human rights will be left to the court of public opinion.

Dr Nilanthy Vigneswaran is an Infectious Diseases doctor and refugee health advocate with the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network (DASSAN).

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