Australian Refugee Policy is contentious. It’s been at the heart of almost every federal election since John Howard first took office in 1996. Since then, we’ve been given repeated warnings from the United Nations, Amnesty International and the Human Rights Commission that our policy is crap – it traumatises people and causes severe harm. We’ve scrapped policies and built new ones. We’ve opened up our borders and we’ve closed them. We’ve built new detention centres, emptied out old ones, and even tried to move the whole problem overseas. But we’re still failing.

Immigrant versus Refugee

First things first, an immigrant isn’t the same as a refugee.

An immigrant may move to Australia for any number of reasons. A job, a family reunion, or because they’re a big fan of snakes that can kill you or Delta Goodrem (as in, they’re a fan of Delta Goodrem, not that the snakes could kill Delta Goodrem, but I guess they could…never mind).

There’s a legal framework for moving to Australia that’s on par with systems for other developed countries. If you have enough money to buy a plane ticket, have a relatively clean criminal record, and have a good chance of finding a job here (so you won’t leech off the welfare system), then you can call Australia home.

And it’s worth pointing out that immigration has been great for Australia in the past. In the mid-ninteenth century we were one of the most economically successful countries in the world, thanks in large part to our open borders policy and the promise of the Gold Rush. We buggered that up by closing our borders with the White Australia Policy – a piece of legislation that is exactly as racist as it sounds. When we closed our borders, we stumbled into economic recession. The White Australia Policy didn’t properly disappear until 1973, and once we began to welcome both European and Asian immigrants without unfair discrimination, we became more economically stable.

A popular badge from 1901, in support of the White Australia Policy. Our first PM, Edmund Barton, wore one of these.

Still, the idea that our country is going to be ‘swamped by Asians’ (to quote the ginger nut Pauline Hanson) or somehow corrupted by extreme Islamic influence, remains a key concern for many Australians. This doesn’t change the fact that we’re still happy to accept immigrants on ‘reasonable’ terms – it’s one of the many reasons why we’ve had a booming economy with mining and managed to keep afloat during the Global Financial Crisis.

One way to appease the voters who are afraid of being invaded by a mass of chopstick-waving, suicide-bombing, Telstra customer service phone-answering criminals who will vote for gay marriage and renewable energy and take away the Aussie’s right to have a steak and chips for every-single-dinner – is to make a lot of noise about refugee policy.

So what’s a refugee?

A refugee, or asylum-seeker, is someone who can no longer live in their home country safely without fear of persecution or harm. It is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia. As part of being the United Nations, we’re obligated to accept a certain number of refugees every year and assist them settling into the community.

So what’s the problem?

Well, there’s many problems.

The first being that refugees don’t tend to rock up on a Qantas plane with a passport and Gucci luggage. Given the desperate circumstances of their departure, they may be absent of any identification or money. They may be too traumatised to recount the nature of their escape. They probably don’t speak English. They may have arrived on a boat via illegal people smuggling – watching their crew mates or family members drown at sea.

If we had a blanket policy of letting absolutely everyone into Australia who arrived in this manner, we’d have some major problems. First, all jokes aside, are the very real threats to national security posed by terrorist networks. The other, of course, is that we would only encourage people smuggling more. And that’s been proven. If word gets out Australia’s easy to get into via people smuggling, then more people end up coming through people smugglers – which means more deaths at sea, more exploitation of women and girls, and encouragement for criminal networks.

An ad that was the result of the policies we arrived at in 2013, an effort to ‘stop the boats’.

But we can check those people, right? Make sure they’re not terrorists and then process them, and if they’re okay, we let them in…

Prior to 2013, that was roughly our policy.

Except we were doing a shit job. People were waiting years for their application to be processed. It was unfair and people were suffering. The system was broken. Plus, people were still rocking up in boats via people smugglers.

In 2013, when Kevin Rudd returned to the role of PM, he had a firmer hand on this policy. He made it clear that anyone who arrived in Australia by boat would simply not be settled here. (This was a huge turn around. When he was first elected in 2007, he actively closed down detention centres.) The Aussie government would now try to get the boats to turn back, or they would put the refugees in off shore detention – on Manus Island (part of Papua New Guinea) or Nauru (a small pacific island) to be processed and re-settled – anywhere but Australia.

This matched Tony Abbott’s key slogan for the election, to ‘stop the boats’. And the policy was successful. Boat arrivals dropped dramatically and Abbott took as much credit as he could.

The East Lorengau transit accomodation for refugees on Manus Island – a ‘limbo’ camp while refugees await to be transported. Photo by Refugee Action Coalition.

So problem…solved…?

Not at all. We’re still stuck with Manus and Nauru. We don’t know much about daily life there, as journalists aren’t allowed in (to protect our national security…apparently), but reports aren’t good.

As recently as this weekend, a man has been found dead, apparently by suicide, in a Manus Island hospital. He was a Sri Lankin, and had already been found to be a valid refugee. He was legally owed protection, and was waiting to be re-settled. He had attempted suicide three days before, had been diagnosed with acute mental distress, and sent to a local hospital. The hospital, reported as under serviced, was unable to save his life.

This is not the first story like this – not by a long shot. There was another suicide in August by an Iranian man. His long-standing mental health issues had been raised with Australian Border Officials for well over a year. At least six refugees have died on Manus. Another three have died on Nauru.

Refugees can wait for over four years to be settled.

A photo released by the Department of Immigration, 2012. The Manus Island Regional Detention Centre.

In June, the Australian Government settled a huge class action law suit with Manus Island detainees – both current and past. They agreed to pay out $70 million in damages to over 1,900 detainees who had signed onto the class action. Had the trial gone ahead, they were likely to have had to pay more.

In 2016, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court declared the Manus Island Centre illegal, as it was against human rights. The centre, which is run by the Papua New Guinea government in partnership with the Australian Border Security, has appalling conditions, with detainees complaining about rampant abuse from staff, appalling food that is mouldy or long expired and a lack of medical care. The centre is set to close at the end of October, 2017.

So where do they go?

Well, fifty of them just left to be re-settled in the United States. That was a deal that Turnbull struck with Obama, and then Trump famously didn’t like. The rest will either be re-settled in Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Nauru or elsewhere. It’s been reported that the government has offered the refugees as much as $25,000 each to return to their own countries.

Ugh, this makes me feel sick.


And there’s a lot more to talk about. Our Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is a controversial figure. This month alone he’s gotten in trouble for tightening the English level on the citizenship test (apparently a lot of year ten students wouldn’t even pass it), he’s wanted to take phones off immigrants, and he wanted to send a hundred refugees back to Nauru and Manus Island after they’d be flown to Australia for urgent medical attention. (Just by the by, he also wants to vote no on marriage equality, has been granted unprecedented personal powers as Immigration Minister, and was voted the ‘worst health minister ever’ for his time in the role in 2013 by over a thousand doctors.)

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, permanently concerned about his odd eyebrows. Photo by Mike Bowers.

The key problem of a nation’s refugee policy is the very thing that demands our humanity – the idea that refugees are desperate. Desperate enough to do anything. Take the example of Dutton and Turnbull wanting to ship back those refugees who had medical treatment, for example. On the one hand, that seems inhumane and stupid. On the other, would accepting those refugees into the Australian community encourage others in offshore detention to get sick or harm themselves? Quite possible. In the past refugees in off shore detention protested their conditions by sewing their mouths shut. Others have harmed themselves in an attempt to hurry their application process.

At the end of 2016, Nauru had 380 asylum seekers awaiting processing. Manus Island had 866. 1,244 people total. On average, about 90% of people who arrive by boats are found to be genuine refugees. It’s the remaining 10% that we are trying to avoid.

So with those numbers, that means we’re worried about 124 people. How much pain are our policies causing in exchange for those people?

But if we adopt a more compassionate, lenient process, there’ll be more people. In a way, all the bad press about Manus and Nauru is good for the government’s ultimate aim. At the moment, Australia doesn’t look like an attractive destination if you’re seeking asylum. But then, if you’re desperate enough to seek asylum, you many not care where you end up anyway.

There are no easy answers, but almost everyone’s agreed: the current situation is not good enough. Charities such as Amnesty International have frequent campaigns.

We’ll be back on Friday with the news, including a breakdown of the shooting in Vegas.

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