Refugees / Immigration
An asylum seeker is the term used for a person who is feeling persecution in another country and claims to be a refugee – they are “seeking asylum in another country”.
A refugee is the term used once an asylum seeker has been found to have a legitimate fear of persecution on the basis of “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
The specific grounds for deciding on refugee status were enshrined at international law in Article 1A of the Refugees Convention, the key international instrument that regulates the obligations of states to protect refugees.
As the diagram above shows, approximately 80% of the world's displaced people live in neighbouring countries. The top 5 refugee hosting countries are Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, Sudan and Germany. You can see that, except for Germany, what they all have in common is that they border countries suffering from conflict. Australia is lucky not to have conflicts on its immediate doorstep. As such, most refugees would ordinarily be accepted via a process managed by the UN High Commission for Refugees. However, in Australia we also see people arriving on boats and on planes, and claiming asylum once they get here. Technically, that is not illegal - but boat people have been villifed in Australia for political reasons for almost two decades now. The irony is that data shows that the vast majority of boat people are found to be legitimate refugees whereas plane arrivals have a low acceptance level. However, numbers of people claiming asylum by plane have sky-rocketed since 2015, with more than 27,000 asylum seekers arriving by plane in 2017/18. These people have not been treated anywhere near as harshly as boat people by the Scott Morrison or Peter Dutton.
The rest of this page explains how and why we have treated boat people so cruelly over the last two decades, with both the Coalition and Labor implementing harsh policies that are increasingly punitive.
Brief history of mandatory detention of asylum seekers
Compared to other countries around the world, Australia does not host a lot of refugees. Nonetheless, we have had tough laws regarding asylum seekers for almost three decades, with both side of politics introducing increasingly harsh policies over the years. The ALP Keating Government was the first to introduce mandatory and indefinite detention, with the cruel policies against asylum seekers and refugees strengthened under the Coalition Howard Government.
The Howard Government’s rhetoric about refugees became more shrill over the years, leading to notorious scandals such as the “Children Overboard Affair”, where Ministers in the Howard Government knowingly lied about the actions of asylum seekers on a sinking boat, claiming that parents threw their children in the water deliberately, when they knew that was not true. In 2001, in the lead up to an election which Howard was tipped to lose, the Tampa Crisis occurred, with Howard refusing to accept asylum seekers rescued at sea from a sinking ship.
Offshore detention on Manus Island and Nauru
In 2001, following the Tampa Incident and Howard’s re-election, Howard introduced the Pacific Solution, which paid the Nauru and PNG Governments (both of which had questionable records on corruption at that time) to hold asylum seekers found in the waters off the coast of Australia in detention. This approach was arguably illegal and most definitely immoral, and undermined the governance of both Nauru and PNG, as well as Australia’s own standing internationally.
It has been almost two decades since Howard introduced the Pacific Solution, with the ALP and Coalition Governments since then competing with each other for how harsh they could be towards asylum-seekers (other than a brief period from 2008-11 when the Rudd Government stopped offshore processing). In July 2013, PM Rudd announced another deal with PNG for offshore processing and stated that no one who sought asylum in Australia by boat would ever settle in Australia. Since Rudd succumbed to the Coalition’s hardline policy of refugee-villification there has effectively been bipartisan agreement between the major parties to enforce an incredibly harsh policy towards all asylum seekers coming by boat.
MedEvac Legislation & Proposed Repeal
Under Australia’s watch, and over the last decade, Australia has fully funded the bills for all of the people in detention overseas. Australia clearly has a duty of care towards these people and yet 12 refugees have died in Nauru and Manus, a number of female refugees have been raped, and many men, women and children have self-harmed. Our
In 2015, the Forgotten Children Report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, discovered more than 300 children made or threatened self-harm attempts over 15 months and dozens reported sexual assault. In 2015, the Abbott Government commissioned the independent Moss Review which found there was widespread sexual and physical assault of detainees on Nauru.
Despite the substantial health and well-being issues faced by large numbers of asylum seekers and refugees in Nauru and Manus, the Coalition Governments under Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison have been incredibly harsh on detainees in need of medical care, against the advice of doctors, including ignoring doctors directly working with sick refugees on Nauru and Manus. Médecins Sans Frontières, which worked on Nauru before being kicked out by a defensive Nauru Government, in 2018 called for the immediate evacuation of all refugees from Nauru on mental health grounds.
Near the end of the last term of Parliament, the growing cross-bench used their leverage to work with the ALP and Greens to enact the so-called MedEvac Bill, which was designed to depoliticise decisions to move people from Nauru and Manus for medical treatment by relying on the medical advice of a panel of doctors, rather than bureaucrats. Nonetheless, the Immigration Minister could still overturn recommendations of the medical panel on security grounds.
Since the MedEvac Law was enacted in February 2019, the Morrison Government has tried to scaremonger that it would result in a floodgate of new boat arrivals and/or allow in criminals, but this has been proven untrue. In late June, activists reported that medical transfer requests from 50 refugees and asylum seekers were being reviewed, disputing a spurious claim by Peter Dutton's that 250 cases were in the queue. There is no need for the MedEvac Law to be repealed, but the Morrison Government is pushing repeal legislation purely for ideological reasons –they were thwarted by a compassionate cross-bench before the election, but now that they have the numbers, they want to show their strength.
The repeal of the MedEvac Law is unnecessary and it is cruel. It is imperative that we write to the cross-bench to NOT repeal the law, in particular Senator Jacqui Lambie, whose vote is undecided and likely to the swing vote needed by the Government (because the ALP, Greens and Centre Alliance have said they will vote against, and One Nation and Corey Bernardi have said they will vote for).
The MedEvac Repeal Bill was tabled in Parliament on 4 July, but the Bill was sent to a Senate Committee for consideration and will only return to the House in October 2019. The public can make submissions on the MedEvac Bill until 16 August 2019, vie the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee webpage.
Better options for processing asylum seekers
Section under development
Additional resources / reading
Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee (2019) Inquiry into the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019 [Provisions], submissions due 16 August 2019;
Stop The Boats, documentary which tells the story of how Australia used the slogan to demonise people seeking asylum;
Helen Davidson (2016) “Offshore detention: Australia's recent immigration history a 'human rights catastrophe'”, The Guardian, 13 November;
Parliamentary Select Committee (2015) “Final Report: Taking responsibility: conditions and circumstances at Australia's Regional Processing Centre in Nauru”, 31 August;
Australian Human Rights Commission (2015) Forgotten Children Report;
Asylum Seekers Resource Centre website;
Medevac Bill - The Facts, Refugee Council of Australia;
Roads to Refuge, a website of resources for students, teachers, etc;
“If they are genuine refugees, there is no deterrent that we can create which is going to be severe enough, cruel enough, nasty enough to stop them fleeing the terror in their own lands.”
- Hon Malcolm Fraser, Former Prime Minister of Australia