Australia’s Rigid Immigration Barrier

Gabrielle Appleby, New York Times, May 8, 2015

In April, after the deaths of nearly 900 migrants attempting to reach Europe by boat, Australia’s conservative prime minister, Tony Abbott, urged European governments to adopt his country’s hard-line stance. The sentiment echoed a comment he’d made weeks earlier: that only his administration could resist “the cries of the human rights lawyers.”

The Abbott government’s strategy is to treat asylum-seekers who arrive by boat so terribly that they simply give up. Unconstrained by a bill of rights, Canberra has implemented a suite of harsh policies to this end. And now Parliament is considering two bills that could further toughen the country’s stance.

Central to Australia’s policies is the navy’s authority to intercept and return boats carrying asylum-seekers to countries like Indonesia, where they live in legal limbo, and Sri Lanka, where they may face government prosecution or worse. Those who do reach Australian territory are sent to privately run detention centers on the impoverished Pacific island states of Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where conditions are notoriously poor. As of March 31, 124 children were in immigration detention in Australia; 103 on Nauru.

Canberra spends millions publicizing these policies abroad: Newspaper ads, posters and even a TV movie warn those desperate enough to attempt the hazardous boat journey that they “will not make Australia home.”

Last September, in return for $31 million in development assistance, Cambodia agreed to accept refugees held on Nauru, provided they consented to the transfer. Refugees have been told of Cambodia’s “wealth of opportunity,” and offered resettlement packages in exchange for volunteering. But the pitch is a fantasy. In November, Human Rights Watch reported on Cambodia’s failure to support refugees already living there; the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has also expressed concern about Cambodia’s treatment of asylum-seekers.

Canberra, undeterred by the human cost, is pushing legislation that would further entrench these programs. One bill, likely to be voted on this month, would make operational a permanent Australian Border Force in the Department of Immigration. To be fully established by July, this force would oversee the interception and return of boats carrying asylum-seekers; its commissioner would have the same standing as the chief of the Australian Defense Force.

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The second piece of legislation before Parliament would give officers in Australia’s privately run immigration centers exceptional powers to use “reasonable force” against detainees, effectively with impunity. This would be authorized not just to protect the life, health or safety of others, but to “maintain the good order, peace or security” of a facility. These powers, possibly involving lethal force, could be invoked to suppress legitimate, nonviolent protests.

Officers deemed to have utilized force “in good faith” would receive legal immunity. {snip}

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{snip} According to the U.N.H.C.R., there were 1.2 million asylum-seekers worldwide in 2013. That year, Australia saw its greatest number of asylum-seekers arriving by boat: about 20,000. {snip}

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In January, a poll by an Australian media research firm found that 58 percent of Australians considered the country’s position on asylum-seekers either appropriate or too soft; only 26 percent thought it too tough.

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