This week in New York, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, “Our policy on border protection is the best in the world,” and he’ll be touting the Australian model of offshore refugee detention and resettlement at two refugee summits this week. But Australia’s approach should give world leaders some pause.
“I understand the need to protect the safety of Australians, the need to control the borders,” an Iranian refugee who had tried to reach Australia by boat told me. “But sometimes I wonder if it would have been better to drown at sea than live here.”
I spoke with him on remote Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea. Australia intercepts boats filled with desperate asylum seekers and sends them there or to the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru. These are no tropical island paradises, but offshore purgatory, where people endure a horrendous existence without hope for the future.
Asylum seekers and refugees on Manus and Nauru have languished for years in dirty and cramped conditions in isolated detention centers with lengthy delays in refugee processing. Visits by Human Rights Watch to both islands found that refugees and asylum seekers have faced physical abuse, including sexual assault, harassment, intimidation, deliberate disregard for their health and safety, and uncertainty about their futures. On Manus, I met men haunted by the deadly violence they experienced when security personnel and local men armed with guns and machetes stormed the center, threatening and beating the residents. Refugees told us that the thought of settling on either island is unthinkable — even terrifying.
Prolonged and indefinite detention has driven people to the breaking point, with alarming levels of trauma, depression and other mental health conditions. We met refugees and asylum seekers who cut themselves, banged their heads on walls, did not talk to anybody for months or refused to go outside. Two people on Nauru set themselves on fire in May. One of them died. A 9-year-old on Nauru repeatedly spoke about suicide and wanting to burn himself.
Australian officials describe tough offshore detention policies as necessary to deter smuggling by boat and thus save lives at sea. “Deterrence against people-smuggling requires firmness — and even harshness,” argued Tom Switzer in The Post. Yet such harshness needs to be directed at people smugglers, not punishing the people seeking asylum who successfully made it to Australia. The best deterrent against people-smuggling is to provide safe, legal pathways of migration from transit countries so that asylum seekers don’t have to take dangerous boat journeys.
What’s more, these policies are incredibly costly — roughly 1 million Australian dollars (U.S. $754,000) per detainee on Manus each year.
Aside from the expense to Australia’s taxpayers, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the government won’t be able to keep using this strategy in Manus or Nauru for the long term. A Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruling is forcing its government and Australia to take steps to close the Manus center. Litigation in Australian courts is challenging the return of asylum seekers to both countries. The Australian government lacks any clear “end game” for its refugees.
International law doesn’t permit a country to violate the rights of one group of people to potentially “save” others from the hazards of travel in overcrowded boats over the open sea. And yet, that is exactly the argument that Australia has been spinning. An Iranian refugee on Manus described it best, “The cost of Australia’s border protection policies is a human sacrifice — us. They need us here as a symbol to stop the boats.”
Fewer people may be dying on the seas between Australia and Indonesia. But if that depends on people suffering elsewhere, then it cannot be considered a humanitarian success. Globally, the world is facing a migration crisis with more than 65 million people displaced worldwide, including Syrian families fleeing the Islamic State or the Assad regime, Afghans fleeing the Taliban, and Rohingyas needing to escape Burma’s discriminatory policies. Australia shutting down one boat migration route does not help these people; it merely adds to the burden of other less-equipped countries.
Discouraging unsafe boat migration does not have to go hand in hand with cruelty to refugees. There are other things Australia could do to prevent deaths at sea.
For starters, Australia could put some of the billions of dollars that have been spent on offshore processing into assisting transit countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia to protect refugees and asylum seekers so that people aren’t compelled to get on boats. Many of those who get on boats would be happy to wait it out elsewhere if they had a job, if their kids could go to school, and if they had basic health care.
Second, Australia could agree to resettle a significant number of refugees from countries in the region, such as Indonesia, to provide incentives for people not to get on boats. Instead, Australia stopped accepting refugees who registered in Indonesia after July 2014 as part of its deterrence strategy, despite repeated requests from Indonesia to help with an overflow of refugees.
And third, Australia should use its influence and resources more effectively to address the violence and discrimination that lead people to leave their countries.
To be a responsible regional player, Australia should be working hard to resolve refugee crises, not causing new ones.
Elaine Pearson is the Australian director at Human Rights Watch.