Australia’s Two-Faced Approach toward Asylum Seekers and Refugees

On the sidelines of last month’s United Nations General Assembly, President Barack Obama hosted the Leaders Summit on Refugees to bring attention to the refugee crisis, but more specifically, to get global leaders to commit to bringing solutions to the table. The summit generated commitments from 50 members and organizations—including an increase in funding and admittance of refugees. The summit was held a day after the UN General Assembly adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants—a pledge that includes provisions protecting the human rights of refugees, condemning xenophobia toward refugees, and improving the delivery of humanitarian assistance to refugees, to name a few. Various other individual promises were made by those in attendance, but of particular notice, was the commitment made by Australia—a country whose tough migration and asylum policies have been criticized and condemned by the UN for violation of international law.

For the past twenty or so years, Australia has taken in about 12,000-13,000 refugees per year. This year at the summit, however, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull committed to increasing its intake of refugees to 18,750. In addition, Turnbull agreed to provide $130 million for peace building efforts and to assist those being hosted in other countries. Surprisingly, Australia will not only admit refugees fleeing war-torn Syria and Iraq, but it will also dedicate a portion of that number to taking in individuals currently living in camps in Costa Rica, many of whom fled the ongoing violence in the northern triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. These numbers may seem quite generous, but they fail to capture what the immigration process will be like for these refugees, and more importantly, what everyday life will be like for them once down under.

Australia’s current migrant and asylum policies are dismal, with some of the toughest immigration laws in the world. In 2013, Australia implemented Operation Sovereign Borders to control the influx of asylum seekers arriving in dinghies and other small boats, from southeast Asia, in particular from Indonesia. Under this law, military vessels patrol the waters and are allowed to intercept these boats, and can either send these people back or detain them to check whether or not they’re eligible for asylum. When they’re detained, they’re sent to centers in either the islands of Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea for processing. It is important to note that the processing center in Manus Island will be closing soon, but no timeline has been set just yet. At these centers, these detained individuals wait for an extended period of time until they get cleared on their status. Living conditions in these centers, however, are deplorable. From cramped quarters to lack of facilities, asylum seekers live in the worst of conditions, including allegations of widespread physical and sexual abuse.

DIAC images, © 2012

DIAC images, © 2012

It’s hypocritical of Australia to want to increase its intake of refugees when it has such tough migrant and asylum policies. So what’s the point in admitting refugees if they aren’t going to be fully admitted and integrated into their host country? If Prime Minister Turnbull really wants to make a commitment to admitting more refugees, then he has to pledge to settle them within the country without placing them in dismal quarters in remote islands before being officially admitted into the country. Moreover, he, along with others who’ve committed to admitting more refugees, need to do more to tackle the root causes of migration instead of just putting a temporary band-aid on the problem by admitting more refugees. Until then, the refugee crisis will not be truly solved. Australia should be less tough with its policies and more concerned about correcting its human rights abuses before it starts taking in more refugees into the country.


Marcela Aguirre

Marcela currently works in digital fundraising for a political campaign. She holds an M.A. in International Affairs from Boston University and a B.A., summa cum laude, in Communication Studies with a minor in French from The University of Texas at El Paso. She specializes in foreign policy, public diplomacy, and conflict resolution, and has regional expertise in Europe and Latin America. You can connect with her on Twitter @mar_ce_la_88.
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