Australia: Stopping the boats does not solve the problem
August 03, 2016
|Refugees arrive safely to the shores of Greece after taking a dangerous passage. 238,220 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea in 2016. So far this year an estimated 2,942 deaths have been recorded. (Sergei Camara)
|“The complacency in Australia about the fate of those who can no longer arrive here by boat can be summed up in the old adage: out of sight, out of mind.”
(Kings Cross, NSW) August 3, 2016 – Austria’s
foreign minister recently suggested that people seeking asylum in Europe should
not be allowed to enter the continent, but should be held on offshore islands
instead. Sebastian Kurz said that the principles of the “Australian model”
should be applied to Europe, and went as far as to suggest that people who
entered Europe “illegally” should lose their right to apply for asylum.
At first glance, the “Australian
model” may seem attractive to politicians in Europe: this uncompromising and
unapologetically militarized solution seems to have brought order to what had
been a period of unregulated arrivals of thousands of people on Australia’s
shores. In the words of the former commander of Operation Sovereign Borders Lieutenant
General Angus Campbell; “The Australia government has introduced the toughest
border protection measures ever … If you travel by boat to Australia you will
never make Australia home.”
But if Foreign Minister Kurz were to
look more closely he would see that Australia’s tough border policies are
having unforeseen and potentially catastrophic consequences.
The harm that Australia’s policies
has caused to the people stranded on Nauru
and Manus Island, those detained in
mainland detention centers
, and the nearly 30,000 people seeking asylum and
living in the Australian community
, is well documented. With the 2016 election
now behind us, and the return of coalition government, it is timely to review
the government’s current strategy and ask the question: is “stopping the boats”
a successful, long-term, sustainable approach?
If stopping the boats and securing
Australia’s borders are the end goal – as the government unashamedly admits it
is – then it appears the government has had a degree of success. The boats have
been stopped from arriving on Australian shores; however, they have not stopped
leaving Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam entirely.
While the number of boats attempting
the journey to Australia has been dramatically reduced, people have not stopped
trying to make their way to a country where they can find safety. In May of
this year a boat with 12 Sri Lankans
, including women and children, was
intercepted off the Australian territory of Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Within two
days the group had been returned to Sri Lanka. In fact, since Operation
Sovereign Borders began in 2013, 28 boats have been intercepted, and a total of
743 people returned to the countries from which they fled.
What about the people who would have
boarded boats headed for Australia, but have not done so because of its current
policy of absolute deterrence? Has a “stop the boats” policy resolved the
global challenge of forced migration?
In a recent report by Academy of the
Social Sciences in Australia
, authors Caroline Fleay and Lisa Hartley argue
that “Australian policies are having disturbing impacts beyond our borders.”
The researchers describe how the Australian government’s direct collaboration
with Sri Lankan security agencies has prevented the departure of people who are
in fear of persecution and would like to seek asylum elsewhere.
The paper outlines how the
government’s policies restrict the ability of people seeking asylum to move
beyond transit countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, and
effectively warehouse them in countries that deny them access to health services,
education, and the labor market. These people also have little to no prospect
Alarmingly, the report also cites
community members in Malaysia who claim that, because the route to Australia
has been blocked, “those seeking safety and protection from their home
countries are now undertaking longer and more hazardous journeys to Europe.”
This troubling development points to an uncomfortable truth: all because people
are not drowning on their way to Australia, this does not mean that they are
not dying elsewhere. The complacency in Australia about the fate of those who
can no longer arrive here by boat can be summed up in the old adage: out of
sight, out of mind.
The publication of this research
coincides with the release of the United Nations agency for refugees (UNHCR) Global Trends Report 2015
. The report finds that an unprecedented number – some
65.3 million people, or one person in 113 – was displaced by conflict and
persecution in 2015. The overwhelming majority – 86 percent – of those
displaced reside in developing nations. They are there not because those
countries have formally agreed to resettle recognized refugees through the
United Nations resettlement program, but because those countries have kept
their borders open and offered much needed refuge.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees,
Filippo Grandi, has said; “At sea, a frightening number of refugees and
migrants are dying each year; on land, people fleeing war are finding their way
blocked by closed borders. Closing borders does not solve the problem.”
As conflicts in Syria, Iraq,
Afghanistan, and South Sudan continue, the UNHCR is desperately urging neighboring
countries to keep their borders open. Australia’s policy of shutting its doors
to people in need of protection undermines the requests from the UN to those
countries, and completely ignores the plight of thousands of people stranded
across the Asia Pacific region.
However, a border policy that is
completely open is not the alternative to Australia’s “stop the boats” policy.
Countries have the right to protect the integrity and security of their
borders, and to regulate the movement of people across those borders. But that
right cannot be allowed to render void the right of people to cross borders to
seek asylum under the conventions of international law. It also should not
countenance the return of people to countries where they may face persecution,
harm and violations of their human rights, or where they cannot receive a fair
and timely hearing of their asylum claims.
Greater efforts must be made to
reduce the need for people to take dangerous and irregular journeys in the
first place. Rather than pouring valuable resources into returning boats and
forcibly repatriating irregular migrants, Australia’s efforts should be focused
on engaging our regional neighbors to strengthen cooperation, address the root
causes of forced migration and develop the region’s own protection infrastructure.
Historically, states in Asia Pacific
have viewed protection as something that happens elsewhere, often in
industrialized countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia.
Assisting our neighbors to develop and coordinate asylum procedures could lead
to the desirable outcome of refugees receiving the same treatment no matter
where they go. One key consequence of increasing protection for asylum seekers
in transit countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia would therefore
be the reduction of onward movement to countries such as Australia.
The Australian government’s current
strategy of preventing people from fleeing persecution in their countries of
origin, and restricting people from leaving transit countries where governments
are unable or unwilling to provide protection, is causing people to take longer
and more dangerous journeys to Europe and other parts of the world. If
Australia’s approach were to be universally adopted the entire global
protection regime would grind to a halt. If you could not flee to another
country without that country’s prior approval, which is essentially the case
now with Australia, there would certainly be no phenomenon of refugees in this
world. The result however would be a global catastrophe: millions of people
would face harm and death in the places from which they cannot flee.
Stopping the boats, while undoubtedly
an expensive and difficult operation for Australia’s Border Force, is a
simplistic solution to a complex problem: people moving irregularly in search
of safety and security. Forced migration is a challenging problem with no
simple solution. In the short to medium term, countries need to come together
in an effort to manage the challenge more effectively. Australia’s current plan
– to deter, deflect and ignore – is prohibitively expensive, inhumane and
ineffective in addressing the global challenge of forced migration. Crucially,
a unilateral policy of closed borders fatally and comprehensively undermines
the architecture of the global protection regime.
Oliver White, Assistant Director, Jesuit Refugee Service Australia
This is part one of a multi-part series that focuses
on Australia’s refugee policies.
Mr Christian Fuchs