Refugee Council of Australia
Two men huddling in yellow shelter

Eroding our identity as a generous nation: Community views on Australia’s treatment of people seeking asylum

Deterrence policies

Offshore processing

“When I came back from Nauru, I was ashamed to call myself an Australian. If you haven’t seen it you have no conception of what it is like. It is that bad. Words fail to describe it. They should be shut down immediately. We won’t live this down…I’ve seen a lot of things. I’ve worked in India, South Africa, Afghanistan but I’ve never seen anything as disgusting as Nauru or Manus Island.”

– Service provider, Sydney

Participants in RCOA’s networks and community consultations expressed grave concerns about conditions in offshore detention centres, describing them as “inhumane”, “unduly cruel” and resulting in “extreme hardship”. Specific areas of concern included the harsh physical environment, substandard accommodation and sanitation facilities, limited access to communication facilities (namely phones and internet) and inadequate medical care. The impact of these conditions on children was of particular concern, with conditions in the Nauru detention centre seen as being inherently unsuitable for and harmful to children.

Those who provided feedback to RCOA were extremely concerned about impacts on offshore processing on mental health. People who had experience of working in offshore detention centres or who had worked with people formerly detained at these centres drew attention to the severity of mental health issues seen amongst people subject to offshore processing, with one participant claiming that mental health issues seen amongst people in offshore detention are “far, far worse” than those seen amongst people in mainland detention.

Concerns have also been raised about the physical safety of refugees and people seeking asylum on both islands. The most extreme example to date of the physical risks faced by people in offshore detention centres was the violent incident at the Manus Island detention centre in February 2014, which left 23-year-old Reza Berati dead and dozens of others injured. As well as general concerns about the lack of security highlighted by this incident, specific concerns were raised about the risks faced by people who witnessed the violence and are assisting with investigations.

In relation to Nauru, participants in RCOA’s networks expressed alarm about the violent attacks on refugees (including unaccompanied children) who have been released from the Nauru detention centre and sexual assault of women both within and outside the Nauru detention facility.

Concerns were also voiced about Australia’s resettlement arrangement with Cambodia, with key issues raised including corruption in Cambodia, potential resentment towards refugees amongst the local Cambodian population and Cambodia’s lack of capacity to provide adequate support to refugees. Resettlement in Cambodia was not seen as a viable long-term option for refugees whose claims had been processed offshore.

Fears were expressed that the combination of harsh conditions, delays in processing of claims, deterioration of mental health and fear of violence could drive people subject to offshore processing to consider returning home even if they have a well-founded fear of persecution (a concern also highlighted previously by UNHCR). Specific concerns were raised that Syrian people seeking asylum have reportedly been encouraged or pressured to repatriate despite the fact that the International

Organization for Migration is not currently facilitating returns to Syria due to the precariousness of the security situation.
Participants in RCOA’s networks also expressed concerns about family separation resulting from offshore processing, citing examples where family members of people living in Australia have been sent offshore and told that they have no prospect of ever being settled in Australia. Some of these examples involved separation of immediate family members (such as partners). A mental health worker expressed concern about the impacts of this separation on people living in Australia: “The degree to which they use [mental health] services is quite extensive for just one person.” Reports were also received of family members being separated within the detention environment, such as couples being detained in separate compounds and people released from detention in Nauru being unable to visit family members still detained at the facility.

Same-sex attracted refugees

RCOA heard ongoing concerns for same-sex attracted refugees sent to Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Fears were expressed that the local laws criminalising same-sex sexual activity would mean that those with claims based on their sexual orientation or gender identity would not be able to live safely in either country.

Indeed, RCOA was made aware of information sessions presented to people detained on Manus Island showing a picture of two men kissing with a large red cross through it. The people detained were warned to not engage in any kind of same-sex sexual activity within the detention centre or in Papua New Guinea, as there were laws that criminalised such behaviour and the penalties were serious, including up to 14 years in prison.

Returns and refoulement

“People are in this constant state of high alert and their whole behaviour is changing on the basis they feel almost positive they will be deported and will have to go home, where is in actual fact they know they are genuinely eligible for refugee status.”

– Service provider, Tasmania

Participants in RCOA’s networks regularly highlighted the fears that people seeking asylum faced in relation to threats of being forcibly returned to places where they are at risk of persecution. This fear was heightened and perpetuated because of the uncertainty regarding return and removal processes.

There was also concern that Department of Immigration case managers in detention facilities were pressuring people to return. In some cases, this practice was seen to be starkly at odds with the on-the-ground realities in countries of origin (particularly in countries such as Syria and Iraq where the security situation is deteriorating daily), leaving people seeking asylum uncertain and anxious about the possibility of being forced back to a very dangerous situation.

Concerns were raised about the fate of people who have been returned to their countries of origin after being “screened out” or after their claims for refugee status have been rejected. Some expressed fears that people had been erroneously denied refugee status and returned to places of persecution. In the words of one consultation participant from Western Australia:

last month, a refugee was deported from Australia to [country]. He was from my place. He was killed on the way back home and his family doesn’t have anyone to support them. [The Government] thinks that they are not refugees, that things are fixed in their countries, but it’s not true.

Others highlighted the limited monitoring of people who have been returned by Australia after being denied refugee status, expressing concern that the Government could not be certain that these individuals had not faced persecution or other threats to their freedom or safety after return.

Concerns were also expressed about the Government’s policy of turning back boats carrying people seeking asylum and its compatibility with Australia’s international legal obligations. There was shock and dismay over the Australian Government’s actions in relation to Sri Lankan and Vietnamese people seeking asylum, particularly the use of perfunctory screening techniques at sea and the subsequent handing back of people seeking asylum to the authorities of their country of origin. It has since been made public that at least nine of the Sri Lankan people seeking asylum forcibly repatriated by Australia subsequently fled to Nepal, where they were granted refugee status by UNHCR.

Several people highlighted the contrast between the Australian Government’s response to boat arrivals under Operation Sovereign Borders and that adopted by the governments of Italy and Greece. In the words of a service provider in regional New South Wales, “We could have a look at what’s happening in Italy and how they’re approaching processing of refugees and the rights of refugees. There are some lessons to be learned there.” One consultation participant in Canberra also questioned whether the boats had in fact “stopped” or had simply been diverted elsewhere: “Are they stopping the boats or just diverting the boats? It seems that the boats haven’t stopped but are going elsewhere on more perilous journeys.”

While participants in RCOA’s networks and community consultations continued to express concern about the practice of “enhanced screening” during 2014 and 2015, more recent feedback indicates that many of the people at risk of return had now been “screened in” and that the issue had become a lower priority due to the drop in new arrivals.

Public and political debate

“Refugees add to our culture. We shouldn’t be afraid. Our national anthem says ‘For those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share’…Are we going to change the national anthem? We have to start living up to our national anthem.”

– Support worker, regional NSW

There was broad agreement among consultation participants that the public and political debate on people seeking asylum had reached an all-time low. As one Victorian community member put it, “the Government’s strategy to create fear is working really well.” Several network members and consultation participants expressed concerns about the continued politicisation of asylum seeker and refugee issues. A participant involved in law enforcement, for example, noted that the politicisation of issues “means that the people who didn’t have an opinion now have an opinion, and it causes people to shift to more extreme views. People are furious about the way people seeking asylum are being treated and others feel that people seeking asylum shouldn’t be here. There is increasing polarisation of these issues.”

The view that the Australian Government was strategically aiming to create fear and anxiety within the broader community was shared by many people, with the effect being that people seeking asylum felt as though they were criminals and people unworthy of support or consideration. As one asylum seeker put it, “we live a fugitive existence.” A former refugee and now citizen of Australia expanded on this, questioning “Why is ‘refugee’ considered such a dirty word when the essence of it is about fleeing? I find it so appalling that it has negative connotations in the wider community.”

One of the results of this damaging rhetoric and debate has been that people who did not seek asylum in Australia but were instead resettled from overseas are also feeling the negative effects. Many former refugees who had been resettled told RCOA that they felt unsafe and unwelcome by some parts of the Australian community. Former refugees who did not arrive by boat also defended people seeking protection in Australia and stated that they were offended by the language and rhetoric of many politicians. One former refugee who was resettled in Australia reflected on the rhetoric of “queue jumping”: “I was in a camp for almost 20 years. There was no queue to come to Australia…For me, having experienced that, it’s very offensive. It doesn’t make sense to me”.

Other consultation participants were baffled as to how the positive story of Australia’s engagement with refugees, its nation-building history and the positive contribution in return to Australian society had become so polluted by fear-mongering and politicking. As one participant from Canberra stated, “The whole narrative about ‘queue jumping’ has moved people away from thinking about how Australia benefits from refugees…It’s such a skewing narrative. Until we get rid of that, I don’t know how things will change.”

Other RCOA members were concerned that Australia was involved in a number of the conflicts and wars but was failing to provide protection to those who were forced to flee as a result of these conflicts and wars. A Tasmanian service worker said “You can’t wage war on a country on the pretext of saving lives, then turn around and say those people fleeing the war not refugees.”

A representative from the South Sudanese community similarly argued:
We go to Afghanistan; we go to Iraq; we go to Syria. For what? Because we are international citizens. So then why can’t we put up with a few people coming by leaking boats? That doesn’t make sense!…We either solve it there, or put up with people coming here. We still haven’t solved it. That makes a case for people coming here. They can turn around and say, ‘You’re fighting there because you know there is a problem. You don’t need any other reason to be told by me, because you know the problem yourself. Let me come in!’

The global context of people’s search for safety was also highlighted, with many people registering their frustration that the number of people fleeing because of persecution and war was increasing dramatically but that the Australian response was to find ways to deter people from finding protection.

The international context was also highlighted in relation to the number of people seeking protection by sea by crossing the Gulf of Aden or the Mediterranean Sea. The contrast between the Mare Nostrum approach by the Italian Government – which framed the issue of people crossing the Mediterranean as a humanitarian concern – and Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders – which framed the issue as one of border protection and deterrence – was not lost on community members. As one consultation participant in Western Australian questioned, “Why are the Italians able to see the humanitarian perspective when they are dealing with vastly more numbers of people than we are?”

On a more positive note, some believed that the negative political rhetoric was being countered by increased goodwill among people in the broader community towards people seeking asylum and a greater interest in understand their plight and providing support. Many RCOA members were frustrated, however, that these stories of support, hope and resilience were not getting through to the public.

Cost of Australia’s policies

Over and over again, RCOA heard from people seeking asylum, former refugees, support workers and other concerned community members about the negative impacts that Australia’s regressive and punitive asylum seeker policies were having on the people whom Australia was supposed to protect. The detrimental effects of Australia’s policies of interception and turnbacks, offshore processing, the lack of work and study rights for people seeking asylum, delays in assessing protection claims and negative, demeaning political rhetoric were all seen as costly in human terms, financial terms and in relation to the damage to Australia’s reputation as a just and fair nation.

Human cost

“We escaped from our own country. It’s like escaping through the window when the house is on fire and we are now back in the same house with a fire around us. We cannot escape from the fire.”

– Hazara asylum seeker

Participants in RCOA’s consultations and networks expressed grave concerns about the impacts of Australia’s policies on the health and wellbeing of people seeking asylum. Many participants in RCOA’s consultations and networks commented on the deterioration in mental health amongst people seeking asylum living in the community.

The combination of limited support and opportunities, lack of work rights, prolonged delays with processing of claims and separation from family members was seen to have a serious negative impact on mental health. A community representative in Sydney spoke of the “mental anguish” faced by people seeking asylum, while a service provider in Tasmania reported that people were hitting a “wall of despondency”. Another service provider in Canberra described the denial of work rights as “destructive” and “crushing” for people seeking asylum, while a service provider in Sydney noted that many people felt “very, very disempowered” due to their inability to financially support family members overseas.

Concerns were also expressed about the inability of people seeking asylum to re-establish themselves and move on with their lives in Australia due to uncertainty about their future. A service provider in Brisbane noted that “people have to put their life on hold”, while a service provider in Victoria stated that “so many people are in limbo. What is life going to be? They can’t build a life.” A representative from the Afghan community spoke of friends who “do nothing but stay home all day worrying about what is happening to them and what is happening to their families. It makes them crazy.”

A member of the Tamil community commented that:

once they have been processed and given permanent residency, then they have a focus, they can settle down, they become calmer and they have a future. Now, they live every day as if it’s their last day. They live in fear of being sent back. It’s a terrible way to live.

Others highlighted on the long-term costs of providing support to people whose mental health had been seriously damaged by Australia’s policies. In the words of a service provider in Canberra, “What hurts people seeking asylum hurts us.” Another service provider in Sydney argued that “if they think about in ten years’ time when they have been permitted to be citizens, they may be spending a lot of money to deal with this mental illness and trauma.”

A number of participants specifically commented on the mental health of children and young people who are seeking asylum. A service provider in Brisbane, for example, asserted that “we will have children harming themselves” while another service provider in Tasmania commented on the impacts of uncertainty and limited opportunities on the mental health of young people: “What’s the worst thing you can do a young person? Give them nothing to do and no hope.” Another service provider noted the negative impacts on children of witnessing the deterioration of their parents’ mental health.

Concern was expressed that some people seeking asylum had turned to negative coping strategies, such as drug use and excessive alcohol consumption. Worrying reports were also received about an increase in cases of domestic violence amongst some families. The precarious situation of these families was seen to be both a driver of violence (through disempowering and placing additional stress and pressure on individuals who are already vulnerable and traumatised) and a barrier to addressing it (in that the vulnerable situation of those affected and potential consequences of reporting violence, such as re-detention of the perpetrator, could deter people from seeking help).

In relation to the denial of work rights, concerns were expressed that people who are desperate to support themselves and their families overseas may be compelled to undertake cash-in-hand work, which would in turn place them at risk of exploitation, unsafe working conditions and re-detention due to having breached their visa conditions.

Financial cost

“We don’t have a human life here. We just cannot study, cannot work, cannot do anything. If the government treats us as human beings, we can actually help this country and can serve this country.”

– Hazara community representative, Sydney

Government spending on deterrence

In the 2014-15 financial year, the Australian Government spent $2.91 billion on detention and compliance-related programs for people seeking asylum who arrived in Australia by boat.{Refugee Council of Australia 2015 .} With approximately 33,000 people currently in Australia awaiting processing of their claims, this represents a cost of around $88,000 per person. In contrast, the total expenditure of UNHCR in 2014 was AUD$3.72 billion, with which it did its best to respond to the needs of around 46.3 million refugees, internally displaced people and stateless people under its mandate. This equates to around AUD$80 per person.

The 2014 Commission of Audit reported that that the cost of detaining someone in an offshore processing facility is over $400,000 per person annually.At such an absurdly high cost per person, the current system can hardly be described as economically efficient. This cost is more than 10 times greater than allowing someone to live in the community while their claims are being processed. According to a Senate Estimates in October 2015, the costs of offshore processing between July and September alone amounted to almost $280 million.

Many of the people that RCOA consulted felt that the financial costs of the current immigration detention regime had clearly become unsustainable. People noted that detention facilities were expensive to operate, particularly if detention is prolonged or if these facilities are located in remote areas. As noted by one service provider, “Christmas Island is an economic disaster for the Australian taxpayers…The island has limited resources, so all food, water, staff, medical supplies, et cetera has to be shipped or flown to the island.”

Prolonged detention of people who have skills or are otherwise able to contribute positively to the Australian community also results in significant loss of social and economic capital for Australia. The more intensive settlement support often required by former detainees who experience ongoing mental health issues further increases the costs associated with prolonged detention.

Many people pointed out the hypocrisy of the Government’s claims that it is trying to save money by cutting services, while on the other hand is spending billions on deterrence. As one consultation participant said, “The Government will pour out money to keep Manus Island and Nauru and Christmas Island going. If they were really serious about trying to cut back on expenses, they would shut down Manus Island pronto and it would make a big difference.” Another service provider commented that:

Deterrence is enormously expensive. It is probably the most expensive policy you can adopt towards refugees and people seeking asylum. It costs billions to build those centres, to strike deals with Papua New Guinea and Nauru. It’s extremely expensive and that money could be spent on much more positive approaches to the issue. The more that Government hears that people do feel that way, the better.

RCOA’s members were also concerned that the spending on deterrence was in stark contrast to the cuts to services for people seeking asylum and people from refugee backgrounds. As one service provider in Western Australia highlighted:

“It’s a furphy to believe that the Government cares about the economic cost. They cut the IAAAS funding for people making migration applications which was $42 million but they gave Cambodia $40 million to possibly settle five people. Money is not the object.”

Ineffectiveness of deterrence

A number of people consulted by RCOA argued that a number of policies implemented as deterrence measures are in fact ineffective at deterring people from taking dangerous journeys to Australia. These policies include offshore processing, denial of work rights, delays in processing, mandatory detention and restrictions on family reunion opportunities. Many people highlighted the lack of evidence demonstrating that these policies have any deterrent impact and believed that their only substantive impact was to cause suffering.

As one service provider stated, “There is a difference between deterring people seeking asylum from arriving and mistreating the ones that are already here”. It was felt that, rather than reducing boat arrivals to Australia, such policies have simply made life more difficult for people already in Australia. Viewed from this perspective, the high costs of Australia’s deterrence-based policies become all the more unjustifiable.

Some participants called on the Government to explore alternative policies which would focus on addressing the conditions which compel people to undertake dangerous boat journeys, rather than simply relying on punitive deterrence-based policies. As one former refugee from Queensland highlighted, “Australia may stop the boats but a refugee will always try find a way to safety.”

Several community members said that if the Australian Government is genuinely concerned with deterring people from taking dangerous journeys by boat, it should seek to establish a regional framework for refugee protection so that people are not forced to risk their lives.

Wasted human potential

RCOA’s members expressed concern about the wasted human potential that resulted from keeping people locked up in detention facilities or denying them the chance to work or study. Many community members said that it defied logic to deny people already in Australia the right to work and instead force them to rely on income support from the Government. It was noted that many people seeking asylum are highly skilled and can contribute significantly to the Australian economy and society.

As one asylum seeker stated, “We are aged 18 to 35 and have lots of potential and energy to serve Australia.” Another community member noted that “The Government is paying to detain people seeking asylum and to implement offshore processing and is paying [benefits] when they could save money by allowing people to work and release people into the community. Refugees have skills and talents that are being wasted.”

Studies have shown that the settlement of people from refugee backgrounds in Australia has had significant social, economic and cultural benefits. If given a chance, refugee and humanitarian entrants are typically keen to work and contribute to Australia. A number of service providers highlighted the gaps in the Australian workforce that people seeking asylum would be able to fill:

Most of the people we see on bridging visas are highly educated and highly skilled and come from professions that are being filled by 457 visas. For example, people with engineering qualifications and skills. There is a significant shortage of engineers and many people are engineers and, if given work rights, could make a significant contribution.

Many people seeking asylum, service providers and community members raised concerns about the lack of English and further education opportunities. Many people seeking asylum expressed to RCOA their keen desire to improve their English and to undertake further education in order to contribute to Australia. However, the denial of access to higher education loan schemes and the lack of Commonwealth-supported places effectively prevent people seeking asylum from undertaking further education.

As one asylum seeker living in the community expressed, “I want to be a psychologist. I self-studied this. I’ve been sitting here for 18 months. I can hardly pay the rent and eat. We have no right to education. I can’t study English, I feel isolated from the community.”
The loss to the Australian community through the denial of work rights and education was also highlighted through the comments of one young asylum seeker:

I lost my dad, I lost my brother and I couldn’t stay anymore. I came to be safe here. I came here in 2012, I’m not allowed to work, there are no funds for me to study. It’s not just me, it’s all people seeking asylum…When I arrived I was 17. Imagine if you are 17 and you are not allowed to go to school. Now I’m almost 20. The best years of my life are gone. When can I go to school? When can I go to college? When can I have my education?

Communication and transparency

“There needs to be a greater level of transparency about what’s going on. There are so many things are done in the dark, we don’t really know what’s happening.”

– Service provider, Sydney

The lack of transparency in the Government’s communication with people seeking asylum, support agencies, refugee communities and the Australian public was viewed as unethical, damaging and a direct contributor to confusion and anxiety for many people and organisations. Several consultation participants felt that if the issues were discussed in an open and transparent way, people would have a better understanding of what was going on. Some felt that the lack of transparency was a purposeful tactic of Government to ensure that a detailed understanding of the complex issues would be avoided and simplistic slogans and responses could prevail.

Some concern was also expressed about perceived efforts to suppress advocacy or silence critical voices, such as through funding arrangements and the confidentiality agreements signed by people working in offshore detention centres. There was also great apprehension that advocacy for individuals – particularly in relation to allegations of sexual and physical abuse – was being met with criminal investigations not of the perpetrator but of the persons or agencies raising alarm over the allegations. The restrictions on disclosure of “protected information” introduced by the Australian Border Force legislation were of particular concern in this regard.

RCOA received overwhelming and consistent feedback about the confusion caused by the pace of policy change. This impacted people seeking asylum themselves as well as the individuals and organisations supporting them. RCOA regularly heard that the lack of transparency was leading to confusion and anxiety for people seeking asylum and their communities. This worry was felt not only by people in the process of seeking protection but also by people who already had permanent residency: RCOA heard that some people with permanent Protection Visas were fearful of being returned to the places where they faced persecution. The confusion and lack of transparency was also flowing on to refugees who were resettled in Australia from overseas, with some expressing confusion regarding which policies and practices applied to them.

This anxiety also had ramifications for the engagement of people seeking asylum with the broader community. One consultation participant in Western Australia noted that people seeking asylum living in the community who had no work or study rights were afraid to do volunteer work even though they were permitted to do so, fearing “that if they put a foot wrong, they’ll be back behind the razor wire [in immigration detention].” The confusion over policy and program changes also impacted people and agencies providing assistance. As one support agency said:

We have even contacted the Immigration Department for clarification; however, DIBP [the Department of Immigration and Border Protection] sometimes does not understand the policy and cannot provide accurate information. We have had to redesign several of our workshops halfway through the year because of the changing policies. It is a waste of resources.

Several mainstream services also advised that they would approach specialist asylum or refugee support services to get advice or information about policies and programs but had difficulty getting clear and up-to-date information. Agencies and groups working with people seeking asylum on a daily basis revealed that even they had difficulty keeping up with the latest and most relevant information about Government policy. One support worker said, “The problem is that communication from the Department to the community and service providers is not good. I think it is part of the strategy. I think everyone is working in a blurry fog.”

There was also concern that DIBP had not given sufficient priority to communicating critical information about policy changes. There was broad agreement that DIBP had become more secretive and less willing to share information or provide clarity on issues of concern. One consultation participant noted that if DIBP provided regular briefings on the changes, the high levels of uncertainty would dissipate. It was felt that this would advantageous not just for people seeking asylum, services and communities but for also for the Government, as it would assist in building greater understanding of the implications of Government policies amongst the people to whom these policies apply and the services tasked with implementing or explaining them.

Damage to Australia’s international reputation

“Australia forgot that it is a signatory to the Refugee Convention.”

– Service provider, Western Australia

International obligations

Many people consulted by RCOA during 2014 and 2015 expressed dismay that Australia’s asylum policies violate international law and place Australia at odds with the international community. The policies of greatest concern included interception and detention at sea, boat turnbacks, “enhanced screening” of refugee claims, mandatory and indefinite detention, inhumane conditions in detention centres, forced returns to countries of origin, “resettlement” arrangements with countries like Cambodia and Papua New Guinea, discrimination based on mode of arrival, denial of work rights and limited support for people seeking asylum living in the community. As one support worker highlighted:

The Australian Government has the primary responsibility for protecting those who arrive in our territory fleeing persecution. First and foremost this means compliance with all international law, including the Refugee Convention, and with principles of justice, compassion, and human dignity.

Some called for Australia to enshrine our international obligations in domestic legislation in order to ensure full compliance with international law and called on the Australian Government to ratify a number of other human rights treaties, including the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

International criticism of Australia’s policies

Australia’s policies towards refugees and people seeking asylum remain the subject of significant international interest and concern. UNHCR expressed concern about Australia’s policies on several occasions during 2014, specifically in relation to boat turnbacks, the violence at the Manus Island detention centre in February 2014 and Australia’s resettlement arrangement with Cambodia, which High Commissioner Antonio Guterres described as a “worrying departure from international norms”. Mr Guterres also drew attention to Australia’s policies during his address at the opening plenary of the 2014 UNHCR-NGO Consultations, naming Australia alongside Egypt and Bulgaria as an example of a country closing its borders to people seeking protection.

Indeed, Australia was consistently singled out for criticism at major international meetings on refugee protection and human rights during 2014 and 2015. One of the most significant examples was the maiden address of the incoming United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, at the 27th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in early September. In a speech which focused on the most serious human rights concerns in the world at the time – such as the Syrian civil war, the advance of Islamic State, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the situation in the Ukraine and the outbreak of the Ebola virus in western Africa – Mr Al Hussein expressed concern about the “chain of human rights violations” resulting from Australia’s policies of boat turnbacks and offshore processing, noting that these policies were leading to “arbitrary detention and possible torture following return to home countries” and “the resettlement of migrants [sic] in countries that are not adequately equipped”.

Similarly, at the UNHCR’s Executive Committee meeting in late September 2014, NGOs from around the world chose to highlight four “particularly troubling situations” in the joint NGO statement on international protection – one of which was the “continuing deterioration of protection standards for people seeking asylum in Australia”. The statement expressed specific concerns about the conditions in offshore detention centres, the deaths of Reza Berati and Hamid Kehazaei, the resettlement arrangement with Cambodia and “the increasingly extreme measures used by Australia to block access to protection”, such as boat turnbacks and forcible returns to Sri Lanka. These concerns were reiterated by NGOs at the UNHCR’s 2015 Executive Committee meeting, with Australia being one of the five country situations highlighted in the joint statement on international protection.

That Australia’s policies have been mentioned alongside such serious refugee protection and human rights concerns is indicative of how significantly our international reputation has been damaged by our treatment of people seeking asylum. It is evident that Australia’s reputation as a country which respects and upholds human rights standards and international law is increasingly being called into question.

Further evidence of the damage to Australia’s reputation emerged through the review in late 2014 of Australia’s compliance with the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The United Nations Committee Against Torture raised concerns about the compatibility of a number of Australia’s policies towards people seeking asylum with the Convention, highlighting the policy of turning back boats without due consideration of non-refoulement obligations; the erosion of protections against refoulement resulting from the Legacy Caseload Act; Australia’s policy of mandatory indefinite immigration detention, in particular the detention of children and the prolonged indefinite detention of stateless people and those who have received adverse security assessments; prolonged indefinite detention and harsh conditions in offshore processing centres, which the Committee noted “reportedly creates serious physical and mental pain and suffering”; and inadequate mechanisms for identifying survivors of torture amongst people seeking asylum. As the Convention Against Torture is designed to prevent some of the most egregious of all human rights violations, the Committee’s clear concern about the compatibility of Australia’s asylum seeker policies with the Convention is particularly significant.

Broader implications

In recent years, participants in RCOA’s networks and community consultations have drawn attention not just to the immediate impacts of Australia’s asylum seeker policies at an individual level but also their broader ramifications. Similar messages were conveyed in 2014 and 2015, with participants highlighting the long-term costs of Australia’s policies in terms of their impacts on the capacity of refugees to settle successfully.

A service provider in regional New South Wales, for example, argued that people subject to offshore processing “will have great difficulty with settlement because they have been through this dehumanising process”. Another service provider in Western Australia highlighted the long-term costs of providing ongoing support to people whose mental health had been compromised by their treatment in Australia: “The costs to pick up the pieces adds to the cost of actually running the policies.” A representative from the Hazara community spoke of struggling to learn English despite having studied for two years, stating “I’m so depressed that I cannot learn.”

Concerns were also raised about the negative influence of Australia’s policies on other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, with some expressing fears that the negative example set by Australia would lead to a further erosion of protection standards across the region.

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