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Australia divided over offshore detention of refugees, but report is optimistic for reform

Taken June 2015 in Melbourne, Australia (Credit: Alberto/ Flickr)

The Australian Human Rights Commission released a report last week proposing alternatives to a current controversial policy of detaining asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus islands. But hope for a pivot under the new prime minister may be short-lived after statements this week indicated little intention to shift away from a border policy he calls “the best in the world.”

Australia maintains a hard-line stance against sea-faring asylum seekers – either turning back their boats or holding them in offshore detention centers as their claims are processed for settlement elsewhere. While the policy has been effective in deterring many from Australia’s shores, it has also come under heavy fire for severe human rights violations.

It’s this political impasse that spurred the commission to “start a conversation” by proposing rights-based policy alternatives, “so that they can be debated, refined, and if they are deemed fit for purpose, implemented.”

The suggestions put forth by the report, called Pathways to Protection, fall within two themes: expanding opportunities for safe entry to Australia and enhancing foreign-policy strategies on migration in the Asia-Pacific region. They aim to not only protect those fleeing persecution, but also address the issues compelling them to take to the seas in the first place.

Proposed policy options include: enlarging and improving Australia’s resettlement program; providing better access to other migration options, such as temporary and student visas; and fostering regional cooperation on refugee protection issues through humanitarian aid and diplomacy.

“The recent election of a new federal government provides an opportunity to consider alternatives to third-country processing that will both secure Australia’s sovereign borders and provide refugees with protection consistently with their human rights,” Gillian Triggs, president of the commission, wrote in the paper’s introduction.

The report precedes the impending closure of the Manus Island detention center after it was ruled to be “illegal and unconstitutional” by Papua New Guinea’s supreme court in April.

Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, is home to one of Australia’s two detention centers. The other is on Nauru, made infamous by “the Nauru files,” a recent leak of more than 2,000 reports, revealing atrocious living conditions, rampant sexual abuse and self-harm. Incriminating reports have continued to surface as recently as this week.

As of July 31, 833 men were being held at the Manus Island detention center, while 411 were at the Nauru facility, including 49 children. Many of them have been there for more than three years, since third-country processing was introduced in 2012, and none will find refuge within Australia’s borders.

“We are particularly concerned about the sexual violence and the number of rapes against women, against children. The amount of self-harm that is really an indicator of how bad the mental health of people has deteriorated,” Chitralekha Massey, the new Pacific representative of the U.N. Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, told the Guardian Australia.

“It’s difficult for me to find words to describe how somebody can go from being at a breaking point and just continue to be at a breaking point endlessly,” Massey said.

At least for detainees at Manus Island, release is on the horizon, though when exactly and where is yet to be determined. Despite ongoing protests for the closure of the Nauru facilities, Peter Dutton, Australia’s immigration minister, has said the processing relationship with Nauru will “continue for decades.”

The commission also strategically timed the report’s release for the lead-up to this week’s U.N. General Assembly, which included President Obama’s summit on refugees yesterday, but on the world stage, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull only reinforced existing policy.

“Our policy on border protection is the best in the world,” Turnbull said in New York at the start of the General Assembly, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. “We have one of the most generous humanitarian programs. But you cannot do that … unless the government is seen to be in command of its borders.”

Turnbull announced at the refugee summit yesterday that Australia would help the U.S. resettle refugees from Central America as part of its 2018-19 intake goal of 18,750, but Oxfam promptly pointed out “no actual increase” in the intake. Opposition leader Bill Shorten also called out Turnbull for failing to address the question on everyone’s mind, ABC reported.

“Malcolm Turnbull has flown to New York to re-announce [former Prime Minister]Tony Abbott’s policies,” Shorten said. “They haven’t dealt with the elephant in the room … the fact that we have nearly 2,000 people trapped in indefinite detention on Manus and Nauru.”

As a wealthy, democratic signatory of the U.N. Refugee Convention in the Asia-Pacific, Australia has legal and diplomatic obligations to uphold the fundamental rights of asylum seekers – rights that are currently being breached on Manus Island and Nauru.

Australia’s example, the report said, will drive regional cooperation, which is crucial to successfully addressing the migrant issue. Along with all member states of the U.N., Australia also acknowledged the need for collective effort on a global scale with the adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants on Monday.

“I am confident that, with informed and respectful discussion, Australia will rise to the challenge of a humane response to those who seek our protection from conflict and persecution,” Triggs wrote. Thousands of detainees hope she’s right.


About Author

Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email