A Comprehensive History of Australia & Asylum Seekers

A Comprehensive History of Australia & Asylum Seekers

As our country revs into full-blown election mode it seems there’s one thing the competing politicians do agree on – stopping the boats. For months, it’s been about ‘stopping the boats’ – as if they are some mysterious force that continues to batter our shores and threaten our way of life.

But is this political spin? Is this a fear-mongering mentality driven by the media? Or do these boats pose a genuine threat to Australia?

While boasting we are a ‘multicultural nation’ since the 1970s, Australia’s apparent inherent acceptance of asylum seekers is even enshrined in the second verse of our national anthem, Advance Australia Fair –

For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share

In clear contrast to this, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd passed legislation this time last week that will see any refugee that comes to Australia by boat re-settled in Papua New Guinea – denying any chance of ever living in Australia. The Prime Minister has called for an order to Australia’s intake of refugees, and believes this new policy is the key to stopping the boats. Hundreds of lives are lost each year in this dangerous journey to Australia, and there has been some praise for the Prime Minister’s actions in trying to end the loss of life at sea.

But that praise has been countered with mounting international criticism of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.

Video courtesy of NTDTV

Kevin Rudd’s policy, however, is only the latest in a long line of aslyum seeker legislation dating back to the 1950s.

Australia became a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1954, which was a very specific UN movement to handle the influx of refugees from World War II, and held certain territorial and time concessions.

But it wasn’t until the 1970s that Australia began to adopt multiculturalism – and its refugee policies were changed in accordance.  In 1973, Australia signed the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. This was a deliberately amended treaty that removed geographic and time limitations from the aforementioned treaty. This allowed for the capacity to adapt to changing refugee situations. The crux of this treaty is the strict compliance to non-refoulement. As set out in the Convention, this prescribes that no refugee should be returned in any manner whatsoever to any country where he or she would be at risk of persecution.

This refoulement is not restricted to their country of origin – all signatories of the treaty are bound by international law to ensure no refugee is to be sent into a country where they are at risk of persecution. Australia remains a signatory to this treaty.

In 1976, Villawood detention centre was established by the Australian Government, and in 1978 a procedure for dealing with onshore applications was implemented. The Federal Government also began to establish support services for refugees – including English language teaching, accommodation and settlement assistance. It was in this same year that ‘boat people’ were first addressed by politicians. Then Immigration Minister, Michael Mackellar, told The Australian that ‘Refugees arriving by boat are not considered queue jumpers’.

1986 saw the first celebration of Refugee Week – and occurred just three weeks before a mass influx of refugees due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Tiananmen Square massacre at the close of the 1980’s. Only three years later came the Migration Legislation Ammendment Act – implemented by the ALP Hawke government to deter illegal immigrants. The Act allowed for the mandatory detention of refugees who were proven to be illegal entrants into the nation.

Mandatory detention was further empowered in 1992, when the policy encompassed any non-citizen without a visa be held in detention – but was limited to 273 days. Just two years later, the 273 day limit was abolished – and in 1997, the management of immigration detention centres was outsourced to private companies.

It was in 2000 that the first protests occurred at the detention centres in Curtin and Woomera. The detainees claimed they were being processed inefficiently – and their claims of ill-treatment led to hunger strikes and lip-sewing. These protests peaked again in the following year, this time at Port Hedland detention center – and a handful of refugees escaped Villawood detention centere. This same year, a Pakistani  refugee committed self-immolation outside Parliament House in Canberra to protest the delay in reuniting with his family. Just four months later, The Border Protection Bill was implemented – granting the Australian Government the authority to remove any ship in the territorial waters of Australia; use reasonable force to do so; provide that any person who was on the ship may be forcibly returned to the ship; guarantee that no asylum applications may be made by people on board the ship. This led, in turn, to the adaption of the Pacific Solution. This would see any asylum seeker arriving without authorisation sent to Australian-funded detention centres on Pacific Island states – barring them from claiming asylum on the Australian mainland.

This was monumental for Australian asylum seeker policy , as our legislation shifted from the political mindset of humanitarian aid, to border protection.

In October of that same year – the Children Overboard Affair dominated the media. An estimated 146 children, 142 women and 65 men drowned while trying to reach Australian shores. Then Prime Minister John Howard made the famous declaration that ‘we will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come’.

Video courtesy of Patriot TV

In October of 2002, the UN’s group on Arbitrary Detention released a scathing report on Australia’s detention centres.

In 2004, Australia was again criticised for its handling of asylum seekers – with the Human Rights and Commission’s report of its Inquiry into Children in Immigration detention finding that Australian detention centres were rampant with institutional abuses of human rights. The full report can be accessed online, here. Despite immense international pressure – the Australian High Court ruled in that same year that Australia’s detention centres were in fact lawful, and also upheld that asylum seekers could be held in detention centres indefinitely.

In 2005 the UN again pressured Australia to bring the treatment of children in detention centres up to the international standard – no amendments were made.

The true cost of the Pacific Solution was released to the Australian public in 2007 with the release of Oxfam’s report – accessible online here. One of the cringe-worthy findings from this report revealed that it costs over seven times more to process asylum seekers off-shore, than it would if it were done on the Australian mainland.

It would seem money does make the world go round – just four months after the release of Oxfam’s report on the financial side of off-shore processing, the Rudd Government abolished  the Pacific Solution – resulting in the closure of the Manus and Nauru detention centres. The UN praised the Australian Government for abolishing the Pacific Solution – but also called for an end to mandatory detention.

In 2011, the Gillard Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Afghanistan Government that allowed for the involuntary repatriation of failed Afghan asylum seekers from Australia to Afghanistan. Protests, hunger strikes and unrest in detention centres followed. In an effort to appease the situation, the Australian Government made an arrangement with Malaysia that involved the ‘swapping’ of 800 of Australia’s asylum seekers for the settlemt of 4,000 of Malaysia’s refugees over the next four years. This move recieved extensive international criticism for its percieved ineficacy. In that same year, Manus Island was re-opened – despite the Pacific Solution having been abolished years earlier.

The Malaysia Solution never eventuated due to lack of support and so the Gillard Government made a commitment to look at community-based alternatives to the mandatory detention centres. Despite the promise of a move away from mandatory detention – Kevin Rudd’s latest policy to wipe Australia’s hands clean of asylum seekers has been met with mass international criticism.

The Guardian asks the question – is Kevin Rudd’s asylum seeker policy the harshest in its history?

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