Australia’s Refugee Policy called into question


Under pressure from the UN and civil protests, the Australian government has announced that child migrants and their families will be evacuated from the island of Nauru, the site of one of the country’s detention centres. Australia ‘s strict immigration policy has drawn admiration from some corners of Europe and the USA, despite the difference between the countries’ situations.

On Saturday 21st October 2018, thousands of people marched through the streets of Sydney and Melbourne to protest conditions in Australia’s last “offshore” detention centre – the only one to accept children – and the troubling events that happen there; depression, mutilation attempts, and suicide. The alarming situation has been condemned by Médecins sans Frontières, who ask “how can the Australian government consider detaining people abroad as a humanitarian policy? What is humanitarian about abandoning people in an open-air prison in Nauru?” The organisation was recently expelled from the island by the authorities.

The idea of outsourcing immigration management is nothing new. On 27th July 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron announced his intention to create “hotspots” on the borders of African countries, and notably in Libya, to process asylum requests before migrants arrived in Europe. The project has since been scrapped.

Until very recently, Australia ran two detention centres of this type; one located on the island of Manus (in Papua New Guinea) and the other on the insular island state of Nauru. The centres were established in 2001 as part of Australia’s attempts to discourage immigration by sea, and would later be known as part of the “Pacific Solution”.

In exchange for significant payment, Australia’s two neighbours agreed to welcome asylum seekers intercepted en route to what would be nicknamed “the lucky country”. During the last decade, most migrants originated from India and China. After a temporary closure, the centres reopened in 2012. The Manus centre would close in October 2017, after the country’s Supreme Court ruled that it contravened fundamental human rights.

Strict and Selective Immigration

This policy ensures that migrants taken into the offshore centres would never set foot on Australian soil; they would either remain in the host country, or be sent back to their country of origin. “Once the people have received the help they need, we expect them to return to their home country”, declared Peter Dutton, the current Minister of the Interior. The extent of this help has long been disputed.

Kieran Gair, Australian journalist for Sky News, insists that the “immigration programme is generous in terms of the number of people accepted annually, both for qualifying immigrants and refugees, when compared to other countries of a similar size”. For the period of 2018-2019, Australia took in 190,000 migrants (68.9% of places going to “qualified” people, and 30.8% for their families)- bearing in mind that the country’s population stands at 25,140,000.

These figures should be put into the context of the strict definitions for “handling refugees”, which counts people persecuted for their religion, their nationality, their political beliefs, etc. According to the 2017 report by the UN Refugee Agency, of the 3.5 million refugees taken in or relocated to a third country (different from the country of origin and the host country) worldwide in 2017, only 23,111 were handled by Australia. This places Australia in 20th place in the rankings, but at 45th if GDP is factored into the equation. Australia is also noted for the proportion of refugees it relocates to a third country.

Populist misdemeanours

As in Europe, immigration is a polarising issue in Australia, and has led to impassioned debates, to the point of the radicalisation of speech, and even a rise in hate speech. For example, Minister of Cities and Population Alan Tudge has recommended that migrants avoid living in cities to reduce congestion.

As for former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, he has referenced “African gangs” which are “difficult to integrate”. Worse still, senator Fraser Anning used the expression “final solution” in a debate about immigration and a people’s vote.

Kieran Gair acknowledges that there are “problems with racism and xenophobia which taint the debate”. However, Australians are generally not “obsessed” with immigration, and see it as “a good thing which contributes to the economy and the development of the country”.

Nevertheless, in August 2017 the Washington Post published transcripts of a phone conversation between Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull, former Australian Prime Minister. “You’re worse than me”, the US President told his counterpart.

Cover photo: Protest of 9th July 2011 organised by the Refugee Action group in Melbourne (© Takver)


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