Refugee Council of Australia
Large cardboard Welcome refugees sign in protest

State of the Nation 2017: Refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia

Seeking safety

Seeking safety

Slamming the door shut

But now that the boats have stopped, why should offshore processing continue? The whole idea was to deter people from coming, from getting in a boat. But that was done. Now, by keeping these guys out there, it’s a punitive act. Is it just to punish those guys who came at that time? Or is it to tell the world that we are the most cruel?

—Krithika Respondent from the Tamil community

Australia is a world leader in resettling refugees from overseas with a proud history of successfully resettling more than 870,000 refugees since World War II. Yet Australia is also one of the world’s poorest in providing durable solutions to people who come here to claim protection – people seeking asylum – especially if they come by boat.

Offshoring our responsibilities

People don’t stop dying because they are not dying in our waters. …. Deterrence kills, we need to completely reframe our way of thinking and think globally. The fact is, it’s the same people, whether they are dying on the shores of the Mediterranean or in our waters, dying in Afghanistan or Syria or Burma. When they are dying in our waters they are our responsibility, and when we create this attitude of pushing boats back and refusing to rescue people, and coerce the captains of these ships to turn back to Indonesia we fail to respond adequately. And for those who have drowned in our waters, hundreds and hundreds have drowned because our search and rescue operations have refused to rescue.

— David, Service provider, Western Australia

Australia is the only country in the world that sends people who come by boat to tiny poor islands, where they are detained and, for some at least, seem set to reside there for the rest of their lives. The offshore detention policy is supported by both major political parties. The policy has caused enormous suffering to over 2,000 people stuck on Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Things have deteriorated significantly in the last two years, as the prolonged detention and deprivation of hope has started to break greater numbers of people.

People here don’t have a real life. We are just surviving. We are dead souls in living bodies. We are just husks.

— Person on Nauru, quoted in joint Amnesty International and Human Right

Although access to the camps is heavily restricted, we have heard more and more about deaths, attempted suicides, high levels of self-harm, and a consistent pattern of allegations of abuse and fear. In 2016, The Guardian published details of 2,123 incidents reported on Nauru, known as the ‘Nauru files’, covering the period from 12 May 2013 to 29 October 2015. These included 159 reports of threatened self-harm by children, 59 reports of assaults on children, and 170 reports involving ‘concern for a minor’. This pattern of abuse, self-harm and assaults continue, with more than 2,000 reports in the period between 1 April 2016 and 30 September 2016 alone.

Even with the flawed and absurdly slow processes of refugee status determination in both countries, the reality has disproven the claim that these people are not ‘genuine’ refugees, with the vast majority having had their refugee claims accepted.

The policy of offshore detention is absurdly expensive, with over $1 billion spent in each of the last three financial years, with Australia paying visa fees alone of $2,000 monthly for each recognised refugee on the island. A recent report from the Australian National Audit Office found that the Department of Immigration and Border Protection approved $1.1 billion of contracts without the required authorisation to do so and that a further $1.1 billion of contracts had no records of who had authorised the payments. This complete failure of accountability and transparency with taxpayers’ money reflects the culture of secrecy and abuse within which these centres operate.

The misspent $2.3 billion amount does not include the $55 million the Australian Government allocated for its deal to resettle refugees to Cambodia, which has proved a woeful failure, with only six refugees opting to take up the offer; and with four of the six having already left Cambodia. The detention centre on Nauru was turned into an ‘open centre’, but in October 2016 there were still 393 people there, including 145 recognised refugees. Conditions remain extremely difficult, with refugees living in fear of violence and abuse at the hands of the local community.

It is in fact worse when you go out into the community [in Nauru] because you are exposed to locals raping you, inflicting harm on you, and two people set themselves alight, and one killed himself/herself by taking tablets. So opening the gates is of no significance. It doesn’t help. In fact, it is more insecure outside than it is inside the camp.

— Person seeking asylum

In 2016, the High Court of Australia had ruled that offshore processing on Nauru did not breach Australia’s Constitution, but only after the Parliament of Australia rushed through retrospective legislation authorising expenditure of offshore processing; and after a surprise announcement on the eve of its hearing that Nauru would remove all curfew restrictions on movement in its detention centre. A strong community campaign to #letthemstay, however, meant that 220 people involved in the case have so far stayed in Australia with an undertaking that they will be given notice before they are returned to Nauru.

Just months later, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled that the arrangement on Manus Island was unconstitutional. Even though our Memorandum of Understanding with Papua New Guinea includes a provision to respect the Constitutions of each country; and the agreement by both governments that in August 2016 that the centre would close, the Australian Government has insisted that those sent to Manus Island would not come to Australia. Instead, these refugees and people seeking asylum are being shuttled by bus in and out of the centre, so that the governments can argue this is no longer ‘detention’.

And look what happened [after the PNG Supreme Court ruling]? The Australian politicians have been preaching to us migrants and refugees for as long as I can remember about the rule of law. When it comes to themselves, well that’s another story altogether….

— Service provider, Western Australia

In November 2016, there was a glimmer of sunlight for those stuck in these centres with the announcement that a deal had been signed with the United States government to resettle people from Nauru and Manus Island. Yet much remains uncertain about the agreement: how many people will be resettled; when they will be resettled; how separated families can be reunited; and looming it over all, what will happen when Donald Trump takes office.

Join the Movement

We need you to show our government that Australia cares about refugees. Help us by joining the movement so we can protect refugees, not punish them.


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