The concerns surrounding the issues affecting asylum seekers are complex and of significant magnitude. These characterize monumental challenges in most countries where asylum is sought. There is a perpetual struggle in sustaining equilibrium between providing asylum to countless numbers of people and keeping control of a country’s borders. Australia is among the countries which are faced by a persisting influx of people seeking asylum. In contrast to the rest of the world, the percentage of individuals looking for asylum in Australia is minimal; however, the reception and treatment of these people cannot be quantified in the same terms.
Australia’s history as a destination for people seeking asylum can be traced to World War II. During this time, it is estimated that Australia resettled over seven hundred thousand people who were displaced. Therefore, the basis of this paper is premised on the assumption that safeguarding and protecting human life, significantly that of individuals escaping danger or fearful for their lives represent the basic function of any country’s policies on asylum; Australia amongst them.
Australia’s response to people seeking asylums has been observed as leaning towards exclusion. The progression of the exclusion trend has grown at alarming rates. The basic provisions for people seeking asylum have been withdrawn creating a difficult and almost impossible environment for them. These provisions include working rights, assisted living through welfare provision and public health care. Australia’s view that refugees should be awarded protection on a temporary basis did nothing to mitigate the asylum seekers problem. However, the situation became worse due to the introduction of the detention system, where people seeking asylum are confined into detention camps ostensibly awaiting verification of their asylum status. These aspects of the Australian asylum policy are attributable to Howard’s government regime; which made it almost impossible to access the determination systems and criterion for gaining asylum in Australia. This paved way to the creation of the pacific solution and the attempt at barring every person arriving by means of a boat, from making an application for protection in Australia (Pickering 2001, p. 171–172). Significant measures have been implemented by the Australian government to regulate and control the influx of people seeking asylum. These include turning away or returning people who have failed or are purported to have failed to reach the Australian migration zone. These individuals are either intercepted while on their way to Australia, or within Australia’s borders. Those within Australia’s jurisdiction are interdicted or turnaround as a result of inadequate documentation or lack thereof. Turning away people seeking asylum denies them protection against that which they were running away from; thus, they are subjected to situations where their lives, liberties and freedoms are at peril (Corlett 2005, p. 193).
The implementation of a system where border management is tailored at preventing people seeking asylum from gaining access is an indication of Australia’s rigidity towards safeguarding human rights across borders. The use of a system where visa can be vetted by immigration officials in and outside Australian borders reduces the number of possible immigrants significantly. This is done through vigorous scrutiny of documents in order to ascertain their validity, while at the same time preventing people purported to be unqualified from entering Australian borders (Gibney 2004, p. 101). However, while this approach is significantly effective in deterring people lacking authentic and appropriate documentation from entering Australia, it fails to provide liberties, safety and health for people facing persecution or harm in their countries of origin.
Prior to 1994, the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia was significantly lesser compared to those arriving in the period between 1999 and 2001. As a result of the arrival of the unauthorized asylum seekers arriving by boat, the Howard government initiated a range of measures aimed at discouraging more boat arrivals while reducing the number of detainees in detention centers. In 1999, the Howard Government implemented Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) enabling a significant number of detainees who had acquired a refugee status to be released into the community. However, residency and protection in Australia, was provided temporarily. The Howard Government reiterated that the temporary protection visa would not give those seeking asylum in Australia to arrive by boat. While this initiative potentially reduced the number of detainees significantly, it only provided protection for a short time frame initially three years.
In 2001, the Howard regime had passed the Migration Amendment Bill 200, bringing into effect the pacific solution policy. This policy was implemented in response to the activities of August 2001 where an estimated 433 people seeking asylum on their way to Australia were rescued after their boat sunk the Tampa, a Norwegian vessel. The Tampa was denied passage into Australia; while the asylum seekers were eventually transferred to another vessel and taken to Nauru, the Pacific island (Philips 2011).
Under the provisions of the Pacific Solution, Cartier and Ashmore, Christmas Island, the Cocos/Keeling Island, were relegated from the Australian migration zone; therefore, noncitizens that arrived unlawfully at any of these regions could not make applications for a visa to Australia, unless provided otherwise by the minister, including the application for protection (Phillips 2012, p. 4-5).
Arrivals at any of these regions were taken to Offshore Processing Centers in Nauru and Manus Island at Papua New Guinea; where they were detained until their asylum claims were reviewed and processed. Asylum seekers whose review concluded that they were owed protection were subsequently resettled in the Australian community or another country, with the significant emphasis being put on finding resettlement in a third country instead of Australia. A number of asylum seekers were processed on the relegated offshore centers of Christmas Island. Those processed in the offshore centers under the Pacific Solution had no access to judicial or legal remedy negative decisions.
In the period between 2001 and 2008, when the Pacific Solution was ended by the Rudd administration, 1637 asylum seekers had been detained in the Manus and Nauru detention centers. Of these, 70 % (1153 people) were found to have refugees’ status and were resettled in another country. 61% of these 1153 refugees resettled in Australia while the rest were taken to other countries such as Sweden, USA, New Zealand and Canada (Bowen 2008).
While the Pacific Solution reduced significantly the percentage of people who would have been detained onshore, human rights and refugee advocacy groups vehemently criticized these actions as negating the international refugee statutes, unjustifiably costly to implement, and causing psychologically suffering for detainees. Additionally, there was significant criticism at the time, of circumstances in onshore detention centers such as Woomera, Curtin, and Baxter which led to extensive rioting and unrest. (Philips 2011)
While mandatory detention was an identifiable cornerstone of the Howard administration’s attempts to persuade asylum seekers coming by boat, mitigating aspects to the severity of the policy was initiated in 2005 by Philip Ruddock, the then Minister for Immigration; where a residential housing project was introduced for children, women and detention arrangements for the community.
Meanwhile, before the 2007 elections, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) announced that it would initiate significant changes to the Australian immigration detention policy and asylum provisions if elected. This included a commitment to bring to an end the Pacific Solution policy and to give permanent protection every refugee. The ALP promised to reduce the detention of asylum seekers in order to conduct initial security, identity and health checks while subjecting the conditions and length of detention to review. The party promised to return the control and management of detention facilities to the public sector unlike the Howard Government which privatized all the operations of detention centers since 1997and the creation of a Refugee Determination Tribunal (Karlsen 2010, p. 1).
However, in 2010, the Labor Government, which was under a new Prime Minister Julia Gillard, proceeded in its initiatives to reduce the number asylum seekers in detention while dealing with the overcrowding problem on the Christmas island and the mainland. Significantly, the Gillard administration continued expanding the detention network in an attempt at mitigating the overcrowding dilemma on Christmas Island through the accommodation of selected detainees to be transferred to the mainland. Additionally Julia Gillard made an announcement stating that her Government aimed at establishing a regional centre for processing asylum seekers (Gillard 2010).
After the re-election of the Gillard administration in 2010, Chris Bowen, the then incumbent Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, stated that additional detainee accommodations for immigrants would be created for unaccompanied children and families in Melbourne. While single adult men would be accommodated in Western Australia and northern Queensland through an expansion of holding capacity at the Curtin Detention Centre that the government reopened (Bowen 2011). New facilities were also designated for Pontville, Wickham Point and Inverbrackie in Tasmania, Darwin and South Australia respectively (Bowen 20110. Similar to the preceding Howard Government, the Gillard Government was under significant pressure to relocate minors especially children from detention facilities, as per the detention values which the ALP had promised.
On October 2010, the Prime Minister Julia Gillard made an announcement indicating that her Government would initiate an expansion program for the residence determination program. Therefore, begin moving vulnerable families and children into community based accommodations from immigration detention centers (Gillard and Bowen 2010). While the pressure continued to increase regarding the detention network, the Gillard Government made public a number of significant changes in policy and initiative regarding the reception, detention and assimilation of asylum seekers in 2011.
The Gillard Government continues its commitment to offshore processing. Meanwhile, at the Australian Labor Party National Conference in December 2011, a consensus was reached where the agreement was that the amendment of the platform was in order in reflecting the Government’s intended continued pursuit of this policy in the context of strengthened international and regional arrangements; to deter further movements of asylum seekers. However, when the Migration Legislation Amendment bill 2011 was withdrawn and the collapse of the Malaysia and Timor solutions and the failure of the proposal for the creation of an assessment centre in Papua New Guinea at Manus Island; the Gillard government reverted to other measures aimed at relieving the intensity of the pressure on detention facilities.
Significantly the Gillard Government proposed in October 2011 that bridging visa be issued to unauthorized asylum seekers arriving by boat same as those who arrive by air and that they be subsequently released (Gillard and Bowen 2011). This policy was effected on November 2012 when the minister for immigration and citizenship declared the first batch of long term detainees to be released on the merit of bridging visa.
The Howard government
Howard’s federal government took a hard line position towards people seeking asylum in Australia, through the implementation of the pacific solution; which facilitated the creation of offshore detention centers for asylum seekers. The Howard regime has been observed to take extreme measures in its attempt to prevent people from seeking asylum in Australia. For instance, the deployment of the navy to patrol international waters, while aircrafts made sure that unauthorized boats carrying possible immigrants were not allowed entering Australia’s territory (Brennan 2006, p. 1). The Howard government was constantly accused of violating human rights in the methods employed; when handling people purported to be illegal immigrants or undocumented asylum seekers. The reported cases where the deployment of the navy to intercept boats ferrying asylum seekers led to significant losses in human lives including children indicated the draconian stand that the government took.
While the arguments presented by the Howard government that it was safeguarding the internal interests of the Australian citizens, it failed to take into consideration the fact it violated human rights through the creation of oppressive detention and interception policies. These policies had no intention of providing asylum to individuals arriving by boat or those who were found to have inadequate documentation. In as much as asylum seekers put pressure to the Australian economy and resources; alternative humane methods could have been implemented including the creation of a flexible refugee policy and the involvement of the international community in mitigating the asylum seekers problem.
The Howard government did not concern itself with ethical implication of any actions it took in controlling and preventing asylum seekers from entering Australia’s territories, but was more concerned on methods of making the captured asylum seekers a lesson to those who intended to seek asylum in Australia. Asylum seekers were not allowed the opportunity to claim for protection as provided by the laws. However, individuals seeking asylum were subjected to rigorous vetting exercises whose futility was depicted in the high rate of offshore detainees and returnees. The human rights of those in detention were uncertain since the Howard government implemented a provision requiring anyone visiting the offshore detention camps to acquire a Visa; which were unwittingly denied especially in applications made by media personnel.
The Gillard government
The Gillard government inherited a significant percentage of the issues, concerns and policies surrounding the asylum seekers. The creation of a panel aimed at establishing the best approach to the asylum seekers issue which has continued to persist. People seeking asylum in Australia continue to attempt entering the Australian territory significantly by means of boat. This entry method has led to loss of lives where boast capsize while others are lost at sea.
The Gillard government has taken into consideration the asylum seekers plight while at the same time observing due process in attempting to determine the suitability of asylum seekers. The Gillard government instituted a panel whose purpose was to reduce the mortality rate of people seeking asylum significantly those travelling by boat (Rourke 2012). This aims at upholding their human rights while at the same time observing rules and regulations governing the handling of asylum seekers as provided by the international treaties in which Australia is a party.
The Gillard government abhors the practices employed by its predecessors significantly the Howard government which implemented the pacific solution while preventing people from gaining asylum through the issue of temporary protection Visas. The Gillard government has created relations with other governments, which will aid, in the processing of asylum seekers. These will provide a base of operations where asylum seekers can be treated to more humane conditions while exposing them to minimal risks. While Australia seeks to safeguard her boarders through the prevention of unwanted criminals from entering the country, the Gillard government aims at implementing recommendations of restructuring offshore processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and Manus Island (Rourke 2012). These were used by the Howard government as detention centers; however, the Gillard government has restructured these centers into humane processing facilities where those seeking asylum can be processed under the purview of the international community. This strategy aims at reducing congestion and mortality rates of asylum seekers attempting to enter Australia. However, these will be provided with safer means of transport and alternative routes which are not prone to risk their lives.
It is evident that a significant difference appears in the approach employed by each government. While the Howard government ignores the basic human rights of asylum seekers, the Gillard government aims at safeguarding those rights and the rights of Australian citizens. This has been achieved through the creation of policies which observe the protection of all persons irrespective of their citizenship.
While the need for safeguarding a country’s interests is essential, preservation, protection and safeguarding human life is critical. Australia’s approach towards the issues of asylum has been found to be extreme and in some cases negating the preservation of human life. A change in perspective and approach towards people seeking asylum is necessary; however, this cannot be achieved without restructuring the rooted exclusionary systems in place. The determination criteria are observed to take a significant amount of time, subjecting the community placed and detained people seeking asylum to significant fears and anxiety. These can be mitigated through expedited processes, where the waiting period is significantly reduced. Decision making should be on the basis of individual case’s merit.
The detention camps and centers should be eliminated; with the exception of individuals considered dangerous to others and themselves. Individuals considered to have no affiliations or allegiance to any state should be set free, while those lacking adequate documents are provided with return papers. It has emerged that the qualification for asylum is determined by government officers; however, given the sensitive nature of the issue, an independent vetting body should be included to ensure transparency and integrity of the process, hence eliminating ambiguous and biased decisions.
A case worker or officer will impact significantly on the processing, integration or return of asylum applicants. While it is evident that some people will qualify for asylum, those that are rejected pose a significant challenge in returning them to their country of origin. The return of failed applicants is subject to time constraints given the availability of resources. Therefore, temporary housing and protection should be provided pending their return. Australia’s asylum policies are prone to misinterpretation by other states intending to adopt similar control measures. Australia demonstrates a hard line position towards individual’s seeking asylum; however, this position is misrepresented as an encroachment to her resources. A comprehensive reformed system should be able to determine genuine cases, while those deemed to have insufficient reasons or whose return does not pose any risk to their individual rights, liberties and safety are retuned.