04 Jan 2017, 01:17

Australia and Asylum Seekers

Australia’s Immigration Detention Situation

Australia receives a lot of criticism from all sides, including from within, for its stance on illegal immigration. AFAIK, the current policy for anyone arriving illegally by sea is automatic detention in an offshore facility. The reason for this stance is deterrence - to discourage others from making the same journey. Automatic detention is pretty obvious, but the offshore component is not so obvious. Again, from what I understand the reason for that is due to legal issues. If Australia were to detain immigrants onshore, then those immigrants would have many more options for pursuing legal challenges in Australian courts. When kept offshore, those avenues are denied to them.

Why is it that we have around 1000 people locked up in detention several years after the main influx arrived? As far as I know, the majority of these people have been assessed and found to be genuine refugees (as per UN convention). So why are they still detained? I’ve found it incredibly hard to get any information to answer this question.

From what I understand, Australia is not obliged to settle these people even if they have been assessed as being refugees and in fact, the Australian government has said their policy is to not settle these people under any circumstances! Instead, various deals have been made with other countries to take these people but for various reasons these deals have either fallen through, or the asylum seekers have refused the offer of re-settlement.

We are constantly told by the mainstream media that the detention centres are hell on earth, inhumane etc. The whole issue is so heavily politicized that I find it very hard to trust either side’s narrative. The obvious question remains however - why would an asylum seeker choose to stay in detention rather than be re-settle somewhere?

It has also been reported that asylum seekers have been offered large sums of money to return to their home countries, but almost all have refused. If someone genuinely fears for their life if returned to their home country, then this would make perfect sense, however I find it hard to believe that this is the reality for most of these people. So what other explanation can there be?

The answer to me seems clear: they believe they still have a chance to be settled in Australia, despite all the government’s proclamations to the contrary. And to get into Australia (or any comparable Western democracy) is by far and away the best option possible in their minds - including staying in detention, and enduring whatever hardships exist there. We live in a very connected world, and these people are no exception. They are in touch, via the Internet, with people who have been settled in various place around the world and can tell them first-hand what conditions are like on the ground. Australia scores near the top of the list in terms of a desirability score.

Where is the balance between rule-of-law and compassion?

Clearly Australia must control its borders. It must have the option of denying people entry who do not qualify as genuine refugees.

But what is a ‘genuine’ refugee? There must be a definition that countries can use which holds up to legal scrutiny. The UN refugee convention states that:

A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. Refugee Council

I have no idea what the process would be for immigration officials to give someone a score against that definition. What I do know is that the issue of illegal immigration has been with us for a long time, so this isn’t a new problem. I can only hope the experts have their ways and means that don’t involve bribes or coercion.

The Australian Government is in an almost impossible position. How do you assess an asylum claim accurately with little or no documentation, and where the person in question, in a lot of cases, is actively seeking to derail the process from fear that a true assessment might result in an unfavourable outcome for them. If a true assessment can’t be made, what then? The person is detained until such time as:

  • new information comes to light relevant to the asylum application
  • the person voluntarily chooses to return home
  • Australia errs on the side of leniency and grants refugee status regardless.

We have a classic game of brinkmanship. Both sides waiting for the other side to blink: the government waiting for the asylum seeker to give up and go home; the asylum seeker hoping for the politicians to cave in due to political pressure etc.