Offshore Detention – AUSTRALIA

Australia is the only country in the world that has offshore processing and mandatory detention of asylum seekers as its policy and practice.

In February 2018, the government reported that there were 1337 people in immigration detention facilities, including 1004 in immigration detention on the mainland and 333 in immigration detention on Christmas Island.

[Up-to-date statistics should be available at the Dept of Home Affairs page here.]

Offshore detention began in 2001, when the Australian government under Prime Minister John Howard instigated the policy, espousing the approach as the ‘solution’ to people without visas travelling to Australia by boat to seek asylum. The policy has been continued by subsequent governments from both sides of politics. Although Article 31 of the UN Refugee Convention – to which Australia is a signatory – states clearly that those fleeing a territory where ‘their life or freedom is threatened’ to seek asylum have a lawful right to enter a country without the usual authorisation, Australian politicians at the highest level continue to incorrectly refer to those taking desperate measures to reach safety as “illegals“.

The commitment to detaining asylum seekers offshore in harrowing conditions continues to be justified by claims that ‘a deterrent will diminish the operations of people smugglers and prevent people drowning at sea’ in efforts to reach Australia in unsafe boats.

However, experts have stated that there is no evidence that a deterrent policy is effective in preventing asylum seekers from taking whatever means they can to reach a country where they might find safety for themselves and their families away from war, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

In addition, it has been proven that ‘turning back’ boats is

  • is illegal AND

  • has led to an increase in deaths.

(Listen to the SBS News interview excerpt below with the author of the report, “The Interdiction of Asylum Seekers at Sea: Law and (mal) practice in Europe and Australia“. Dr Violeta Moreno-Lax is a Lecturer in Law, founding Director of the Immigration Law programme and acts regularly as an expert consultant in international refugee and migration law. )

The UN’s global expert on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard’s formal report to the UN general assembly in August 2017, ‘Unlawful Death of Refugees and Migrants’, was scathing in relation to a growing environment where refugees and migrants are demonised; the act of moving to another place criminalised and countries design migration policies based on deterrence and militarisation, tolerating the risk of migrant deaths as part of controlling entry. Australia’s policy of forcibly intercepting asylum seeker boats and pushing them back to their port of origin was given particular mention by the Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council in relation to her formal conclusion that:

“Push-back measures, in addition to violating the principle of ‘non-refoulement’, may also amount to excessive use of force whenever officials place refugees or migrants intentionally and knowingly in circumstances where they may be killed or their lives endangered because of the environment.”

Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law and Monash University Professor, Sarah Joseph (who has conducted numerous human rights training programs for AusAID, DFAT and others), has stated that “the mantra of ‘stop the boats’ has been around much longer than the explicit concern about drowning.” Professor Joseph discusses asylum seeker boats that approach the Australia coast and are then intercepted and escorted away, concluding “to where we do not know. It is surely safer to let them dock, rather than to send them off to the wide ocean again.”

And yet, the ‘we’ve stopped the boats‘ rhetoric continues to be a source of pride for one side of politics and a source of contention or envy for the other.

With a range of authoritative sources emphasising that Australia’s “Operation Sovereign Borders” policy of deflection and containment measures have only served to “channel asylum boats through ever more perilous routes and multiply fatalities” it it difficult to fathom the bipartisan commitment to this approach across Australia major political parties.

However as the legal communiqué excerpt below indicates, the need for governments to repeat messages on strong border security to feed the ever-growing public fear of terrorism is a key motivation.

Despite valid findings from experts e.g. the UNHCR October 2016 report ‘Mediterranean death toll soars to all-time high’ demonstrating that the strategies of people smugglers continue to shift – the Australian government continues to trumpet its success at ‘defeating the people smugglers’ by denying them “a product to sell“, those who seek to capitalise on providing passage for desperate asylum seekers continue to do so, unfazed. Only now operations concentrate on more treacherous waters than ever before in even lower quality vessels and can include organising mass embarkations of thousands of people at a time. As Gabriella Sanchez (Research Fellow at Monash University’s Border Crossing Observatory) in “The myth of the people smugglers’ ‘business model’” concludes:

threatening refugee seekers with the inability to settle in Australia does not constitute a strong or effective deterrence mechanism. At the time they embark in their journey, refugees’ main focus is not on the logistics of resettlement, but on being able to leave behind the extreme conditions they face. To the smugglers, the Australian government’s decision simply means they have to come up with new routes for a segment of clients that is unlikely to disappear.

So Australian governments choose to impose:

  • a policy that leads to more people dying at sea and has no effect on the business of people smugglers (or the efforts of their passengers to use the only measures available to them to find a safe place to live and work)

  • indefinite offshore incarceration with no chance of settlement in Australia on people who have to escape life-threatening danger and persecution AND

  • inhumane conditions that cannot fail to cause more physical, emotional and mental damage to innocent victims of war and tyranny

FOR MORE INFORMATION, You can go to the other pages under the Offshore Detention menu e.g.

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