There are big question marks over immigrant rights and whether they are upheld internationally. In Australia, the rights of asylum seekers are not being upheld, making it a dangerous example for the UK to follow.
The rights of individuals seeking asylum in foreign countries are outlined in international treaties and countries party to such treaties have legal obligations to ensure these rights are upheld. A refugee is an individual who is outside of their country of origin and has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” based on their nationality, political opinion, religion, or membership of a particular social group or race, whereas an asylum seeker is an individual waiting for the determination of the result of their application for legal refugee status. When fleeing ones own country due to a well-founded fear of persecution, one may legally enter foreign countries without documentation without fear of penalties being imposed by states.
Whilst awaiting processing, many asylum seekers are held in detention centres which are often overcrowded and insanitary. Such conditions are evident in the offshore detention centres utilised in Australia.
Australia’s approach: out of sight, out of mind
Australia has one of the toughest approaches to border control in the developed world, reinforcing its borders with military personnel. Despite being a country which has signed the Refugee Convention, it introduced Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013. Under this military-led operation, Australian naval ships were ordered to turn back asylum seekers approaching Australian shores by boat.
During the Tampa Affair of August 2001, law-makers passed emergency legislation enabling them to send all asylum seekers who reached Australian shores to either Nauru or the Manus Islands – sovereign island states near Australia – to wait in detention centres for their asylum claims to be heard. This practice, referred to as ‘offshoring’, creates ambiguity over who is responsible for the asylum seekers and makes it increasingly difficult for individuals to claim asylum from abroad.
This practice stopped in Australia between 2008-11 when a Labor government came into power. Yet the ‘immigration crisis’ in 2011 resulted in the then Labor Prime Minister entering into an agreement with Malaysia whereby Australia could disburden itself of some asylum seekers and transfer them to Malaysia. This deal fell through, however, so there was a return to offshoring in Australia, which has continued ever since.
In 2015 the Australian government spent the equivalent of £240m on its Nauru operation (£200,000 per person detained there). It could cost one-twelfth of this amount to allow these individuals to live on mainland Australia whilst awaiting the result of their refugee application, and potentially less still if such individuals had the right to work.
Questions are therefore raised around Australia’s logic of keeping out asylum seekers whilst allowing other types of immigrants in. It seems the only reason reflecting reality – including their villainising of asylum seekers through negative rhetoric used in the media – is a desire to maintain power over the type of people let in. This is most likely to ensure only those who can benefit them, such as tourists and skilled workers, may enter. By making the conditions immigrants stay in as harsh as possible, it seems they hope to deter such individuals from wanting to come at all.
Amnesty International found that one-third of asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru were housed in tents, not allowed smartphones in the centres, and were subjected to curfews and monitoring by guards, often not being provided with basic adequate healthcare. Many children in such centres have suffered significant psychological consequences from being there, as well as a number of abuse allegations against women and children by officials within such centres and neglect more generally by island workers hired by the Australian government. Human rights groups argue that Australia’s detention of asylum seekers in offshore centres has involved human rights abuses, with Amnesty International finding the conditions and detention of individuals in such centres has violated and continues to violate the right not to be subjected to torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment, as well as the right to not be arbitrarily detained.
Could the UK follow suit?
Australia’s tactics to deter asylum seekers from entering their territory, as well as the treatment of those who do, is arguably incompatible with international human rights laws.
Whilst the current Conservative British government seems to see benefits in following Australia’s example on migration, these must be weighed against the heavy human rights implications this could have upon genuine asylum seekers entering UK territory, as well as upon the value of human rights more generally.
Katy Adams is an MA Human Rights student at University College London.
This is the first of two blogs exploring the British government’s desire to mirror Australia’s immigration policies; the second outlines the current climate of asylum policy in the UK and the implications of following the Australian example.