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Australia’s immigration policy and the plight of refugees have an age old relationship; so much so that a popular primary school book, Morris Gleitzmann’s ‘Boy Overboard‘ presents the situation in a way ten year olds could understand – and this was a book published over a decade ago. More recently, the escalation of violence around the world has seen the global population of displaced people reach an all time high, and Australia has taken the centre stage as a place of refuge – whether the government wants it to or not.
So critical is the ‘refugee crisis’ that the United Nations have begun pleading with the Australian Government to increase its refugee intake. The Australian Government has quite succinctly retaliated by shutting its doors and making life even more difficult for refugees who are already in asylum.
The policy principle instigated by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is “ensuring that people do not get on people smugglers’ boats and put their lives at risk.” So desperate is the government to curb the refugee ‘threat’ that they have even opted for a bazaar measure worth $6 million to dissuade refugees (who are already casualties of war) from even considering Australia as a new home.
The Australian Government commissioned Sydney based company Put It Out to produce a straight-to-TV movie to discourage refugees from seeking asylum in Australia. The movie ‘Journey’ has been recorded in Dari, Pashto, Urdu, Arabic and Farsi and is being screened in Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. The total production cost has neared six million Australian tax dollars. Put It Out has described the movie as an attempt to educate potential asylum seekers of the true nature and dangers of trying to enter Australia illegally as there are misguided beliefs regarding Australian Policy on asylum. The director of ‘Journey’ has self described her work as ‘propaganda’ and has cited that she was involved in psychological operations by NATO to produce pro-war media for Afghan audiences. It appears the Liberal Government has adopted a Cold War-style approach by producing anti-refugee propaganda; such productions over the years have included dramatic television advertising, radio shows and exaggerated political rhetoric.
Following the high court ruling in favour of sending 237 asylum seekers to off shore detention centres, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has assured the public that they would preserve the iron clad deterrence and border protection policies implemented by the Abbott government, ensuring that “this pernicious, criminal trade of people smuggling will not succeed.” This trend of describing the state of asylum seekers as “marketing opportunities” for “people smuggling” has become worryingly common place. While the nature of illegal immigration inherently ties in with people smuggling, the prime minister has shown a tendency to dodge valid questions about the living conditions of existing asylum seekers and Australia’s commitment to refugee rights by framing genuine cases of asylum as nefarious profit-making ploys. Even if this were the case, this does not change the fact that these people who are being trafficked are still victims fleeing persecution and the fact that Australia has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights under which Article 14 states “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
Australian immigration policy has remained harsh on refugee settlement on domestic soil. The Abbott government’s “turn back” policy sent 152 boats back in 2014. In 2012, the government introduced “third country processing”, whereby the asylum seekers transferred out of Australia are to be processed under the laws of those countries. More recently, Turnbull has instigated discussions with Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia to resettle asylum seekers from Nauru and the Manus Islands. However, New Zealand’s offer to settle 150 of Australia’s refugees has been swept under the rug. Turnbull holds firm on the stance that allowing the ‘boat people’ to stay would result in a “catastrophic humanitarian disaster” and the Abbott government policies still stand cruel and strong. While Australian detention laws state that no asylum seeker should be subjected to arbitrary or mandatory detention, there is no legal limit to the time under which a detainee can be held. In 2014, there were over 1500 detainees in immigration hold in the Manus Island and Nauru alone.
Detention conditions have also come under much scrutiny. Reports of riots, hunger strikes and sexual assaults are common place. Human Rights Watch has declared Australia’s policies on refugees and asylum seekers as a “failure to respect international standards” and further cited that Australian government has failed to address concerns from the UN and even attempted to discredit institutions such as the Australian Human Rights Committee (AHRC).
Irrespective of domestic and international pressure, the current political stance still stands as “go back to where you came from.”
Regarding the government’s concerns about people smuggling, although the vast majority of refugees do arrive by plane – those seeking asylum by boat are valid asylum seekers under Australia’s refugee policy requirements.
Despite the hefty anti-refugee laws, the rate of boat arrival has dramatically increased over the past couple of years. The correlation seems to be very closely tied to the level of global conflict and people’s need to protect their families and themselves – an interesting testament to the efficacy of the Government’s anti-refugee policy.