Boats, Borders, Brutality: Australia’s Refugee Policy

by Scott Wark

9 February 2017

Cara Ceriani/Flickr

Last week Donald Trump’s temporary ban on the travel of people from seven Muslim-majority countries to the US provoked outrage across the globe. His executive order – widely referred to as the ‘Muslim ban’ – is clearly about race, religion, and stoking fear. But it’s also about the politics of borders – and so it was notable that Australia was the target of Trump’s volatility last Thursday morning

Trump’s spat with Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull arose from a deal Barack Obama made with the Australian government in the transition period before Trump’s inauguration. The deal involved the US taking 1,250 asylum seekers that have been detained in Australia’s offshore detention centres for over three years. The politics of borders has become so bad in Australia that it is now more expedient to send a small number of migrants – many of whom have been found to be ‘legitimate claimants’ – to the US than it is to resettle them in Australian communities.

Australia’s border regime is arguably even worse than Trump’s. Scott Morrison, Australia’s former immigration minister, now treasurer, went so far as to claim in his initial response to Trump’s order that the country is “the envy of the world when it comes to border protection policies.” We can translate this claim more plainly: Australia is one of the world’s worst offenders when it comes to the maltreatment of asylum seekers.

‘Stop the boats’.

Australian refugee policy is largely directed at people who travel by boat to the country to claim asylum. Although it’s not illegal to claim asylum in Australia, many politicians frequently refer to these migrants as ‘illegal’ or ‘unauthorised’. Why this anxiety about asylum seekers arriving by boat?

In the past four or more decades, Australia has experienced a series of waves of asylum seekers arriving in this way. Australian politicians have exploited these people as easy targets for popular enmity, implementing an increasingly harsh border regime and ratcheting up xenophobia. Former prime minister Tony Abbott infamously reduced this politics to an oft repeated three-word slogan: “stop the boats.”

Australia’s policy towards asylum seekers has a few main planks. It mandates the detention of asylum seekers in offshore camps – where the 1,250 migrants involved in the Trump-Turnbull spat are currently detained. But it also includes legislation commonly referred to as that of ‘deterrence’: policies aimed at deterring asylum seekers from making the journey in the first place. After a number of deadly and high profile deaths from boats sinking at sea, deterrence is often argued to be for migrants’ own good. But what do these policies look like in practice?

Indefinite offshore detention.

The current immigration regime started in 1992, under the centre-left Labor government led by Paul Keating. Keating introduced a policy known as mandatory detention, which stipulated that ‘unlawful non-citizens’ who arrived without authorisation had to be detained. The intention of the policy was to allow for health and security checks to be conducted. But because there’s no time limit on detention, this policy has been used to leave asylum seekers in detention camps for years as they wait for the government to process their claims.

In 2001, the right-wing Liberal-National government led by John Howard introduced the inaptly named Pacific Solution. Under this legislation, the government established regional processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. Australian Defence Force vessels were ordered to intercept boats carrying asylum seekers and transport them to these offshore centres for processing. These centres were closed in 2008 by the then Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd. But in 2010, his successor Julia Gillard announced that the scheme would be recommenced, and transfers began again in 2012.

Either policy would be bad enough on its own. But in combination, mandatory detention and offshore processing have created conditions that amount to torture, according to an Amnesty report on Nauru and a UN report on Manus. Simply put, asylum seekers are supposed to be deterred by being neglected and mistreated.

Zones and territories.

The deterrence strategy reflects the fact that it’s not practically possible to stop all vessels from reaching Australian territory. Australia is huge and relatively sparsely populated, and it’s hard to physically secure its borders.

Alongside mandatory offshore detention, the Howard government’s Pacific Solution therefore also changed the way Australia’s migration zone operated. The migration zone is the part of Australia into which migrants can arrive without authorisation and claim asylum under the Migration Act of 1958. This zone is not the same as Australia’s territory. With the Pacific Solution, Howard excised thousands of islands in the Pacific Ocean – likely landing places for asylum seekers – from this zone. Worse, in 2013 the Rudd government went so far as to successfully excise the entirety of mainland Australia from this zone. Consequently, asylum seekers arriving at mainland Australia cannot claim asylum except at the discretion of the immigration minister.

‘Sovereign borders’.

In recent years, Australia has also changed how its border is both policed and reported on by the media. In 2013, the Australian government launched Operation Sovereign Borders. Led by a military commander, this operation empowered naval and customs patrols to conduct ‘boat turnbacks’: to force boats to return to their point of origin. This policy was aimed at honouring the then recently-elected right wing prime minister Tony Abbott’s promise to “stop the boats.”

Operational Sovereign Borders risked contravening international law against ‘refoulement‘: the expulsion of persons who have the right to be recognised as refugees. But it’s also pernicious for another reason: under this policy, matters concerning asylum seekers have been treated with military-style secrecy as matters of ‘national security’. The government no longer comments on naval and customs patrols of its territorial waters, including the number of boats attempting to make the journey to Australia. It claims this secrecy is necessary for ‘operational reasons’. Cynically, we might say this allows the government to maintain they’ve ‘stopped the boats’ even if they haven’t. More worryingly, however, there is therefore a total lack of transparency over the government’s boat turnbacks, with information hidden from alleged ‘people smugglers’ and Australian citizens alike.

Borders aren’t just walls.

Trump’s wall is a physical manifestation of a border, but the recent Muslim ban is clearly part of a wider border regime. Likewise, Australian deterrence legislation has changed the way the country’s borders function. Australia’s borders have gained such political importance that asylum seekers are kept in conditions tantamount to torture. The government seems fine, too, with arbitrarily denying asylum to anybody who travels by boat. The Australian regime has become so devolved over time that the details of how the border is being managed must now be withheld. The nature of this border has changed.

Not violence nor fiat nor secrecy seem to have shifted public opinion on the politics of asylum in Australia. Europe’s immigration ministers are already looking to Australia as an example of how borders should be managed. They must be stopped from adopting its methods.

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