by Rishabh Bhandari
Every year, thousands of refugees seek to claim asylum in Australia, often coming in vessels that could only charitably be called ‘sea-worthy.’ When they arrive, immigrants often request asylum citing Australia’s responsibility, as a signatory of the UN declaration on refugees, to provide settlement and protection to those who have a “well-founded fear of being persecuted…” in their country of residence. Already this year, more than 4000 people have arrived. Although refugees come from a number of countries, they generally flee to Australia as a result of political instability or conflict in Asia. The most recent influx of refugees to Australia has come overwhelmingly from Sri Lanka. Although the Sri Lankan civil war ostensibly ended in 2009, according to Sam Pari, a spokeswoman for the Australian Tamil Congress, “an end to the war has not resulted in peace for the Tamil people. Tamils continue to fear for their lives in Sri Lanka.” Over the past few weeks, two boats carrying 151 and 113 young men respectively were apprehended by Indian and Sri Lankan authorities on their voyage to Australia, bringing the subject of illegal immigration into focus.
Typically asylum seekers will travel from across the Pacific Ocean to the closest island under Australian sovereignty. Both the aforementioned ships were going to the Cocos Islands, a territory of Australia located in the Indian Ocean, roughly midway between the mainland and Sri Lanka. Although Australia’s treaty obligations are clear, asylum seekers have proven deeply unpopular in Australia. According to a recent nation-wide poll conducted by 5 major newspapers 88% of Australians say asylum seekers should not be allowed to enter the country.
Many criticize asylum-seekers for ‘jumping the queue,’ endangering rescuers or even taking the time and resources of the Australian Navy who must protect Australia’s maritime boundaries and interdict would-be settlers. Beyond this, many Australians incorrectly believe – like their American counterparts – that illegal immigrants receive handsome payouts from the government while taking jobs from more deserving Australians. Seeing such unanimous popular disapproval, both political parties have agreed that the Australian Navy should send back all ‘sea-worthy’ vessels that they can intercept.
What is more contentious, however, is what to do if asylum seekers manage to arrive in Australia. In this case, only 15% of Australians believe they should be ‘sent back out to sea.’ 53% answered that refugee claims should be processed and assessed in Australia while 28% believed that the assessment of legitimacy should be processed in a third country. It is this detail – seemingly trivial or nuanced to an outsider – which has raised eyebrows in Canberra.
Both the ruling Labor party and the Opposition Coalition believe asylum seekers should be processed overseas rather than in Australia. The Coalition wishes to reinstate the “Pacific Solution” that the last Coalition government under Prime Minister John Howard implemented. According to this policy, detention centers akin to Guantanamo Bay were established on several islands including most famously the island of Nauru. In return for keeping asylum seekers as they were processed, Nauru received millions of dollars in aid. The Labor Party recently diverted the flow of asylum seekers to Malaysia for processing. The Australian High Court, under the authority of judicial review, vetoed the so-called ‘Malaysia Solution’ because Malaysia has not signed the UN Refugee Convention. Thus, according to the High Court, Australia could not, in good faith, promise the 4000 refugees it was planning on sending to Malaysia the security Australia is obligated to provide.
This decision stunned Court watchers and legal experts and has also made the Pacific Solution a practically untenable proposal. Yet the burden of governance must fall with the governing party, and as of now Labor continues to obstinately bang its head against the wall, promising off-shore processing without finding a specific place. This reeks of incompetence, as the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has persistently claimed. Yet worse, it reeks of cowardice – Labor is trying to play to the Coalition’s tune of off-shore processing yet the polls clearly show that the Australian people narrowly favor on-shore processing. They just need a party to make the case.
Rishabh Bhandari ’16 is a writer on Australian politics and society. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org