On the 30th of October 2016, the Australian government announced that it would be introducing a law into parliament banning asylum seekers from entering Australia. This law will make it illegal for asylum seekers who were sent to a regional processing centre on Nauru or Manus Island after 19 July 2013 to enter Australia. Even those who are found to have a genuine claim to refugee status will never be able to come to Australia, nor will they be allowed to enter as tourists.
The Federal Opposition has voted against this proposed ban. However, the government remains confident that the law will pass without the support of the opposition. This law is another clear violation of the Australian government’s obligations under international refugee and human rights law. It flagrantly denies men, women, and children the right to seek and enjoy asylum as enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a party and which it has made a commitment to uphold. This proposed law is an affront to the basic human decency which Australia (and all nations) should be affording to some of the most vulnerable people in our globalised world. Instead, Australia takes those fleeing persecution and persecutes them again.
The Australian government claims that its tough border protection policy and detention regime deters people smugglers and sends a message to asylum seekers not to attempt to come to Australia by boat. This utilitarian policy justifies the endless suffering and abuse of those in detention in order to save lives at sea.
This begs the question, when and who will finally hold Australia accountable for its continuous violation of international law and human rights abuses?
In March 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment reported that “the government of Australia, by failing to provide adequate detention conditions; end the practice of detention of children; and put a stop to the escalating violence and tension at the regional processing centre, has violated the right of the asylum seekers including children to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”. In August 2016, more than 2000 incident files were leaked from the Nauru detention centre, revealing the large-scale abuse of children inside the centre. The files show evidence of sexual assault, assault, self-harm, suicide attempts, squalor, and lack of adequate healthcare. Last week, Amnesty International reported that Australia’s offshore processing regime violates the prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment under international law.
In light of this damning evidence, the Australian people, other nations, and the international community can no longer turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses being inflicted on asylum seekers in Australian offshore detention centres. They must demand that Australia close its detention centres and find a way to prevent and protect asylum seekers making the treacherous journey across the sea, without inflicting grave harm on other asylum seekers.
In announcing the government’s new ban on asylum seekers, the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told the press that “a harmonious multicultural society depends on the Australian government being in control of its borders”. A harmonious multicultural society is not developed through a ban on asylum seekers or inhumane detention centres; it comes from government’s welcoming, integrating and protecting the human rights of those fleeing persecution.