The recent UN Human Rights Committee ruling—that Australia’s indefinite detention of five refugees held from 2009-2015 amounted to arbitrary and illegal practice—serves as another reminder of the legally dubious nature of current asylum seeker policies. Yet, given the current political climate in which both major parties support offshore processing and turn backs, one would be forgiven for unquestioningly accepting the virtue of the current policies. Although such policies may be politically expedient, little consideration has been given to their implications beyond the Australian domestic political sphere.
Offshore processing and indefinite detention on Nauru and Manus Island has given rise to a litany of human rights abuses. In a review commissioned by the Human Rights Law Centre, it was found that current policies breached or had the potential to breach laws including Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 3 of the Convention against Torture and Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This is despite Australia having ratified all of these treaties. As a consequence, depression, trauma, self-harm and the stunted development of children have become the norm on Manus and Nauru.
Aside from blighting Australia’s image as a liberal-democracy committed to upholding individual freedoms, such abuses also undermine its regional objectives. Australia maintains several bilateral dialogues with countries including Vietnam and China aimed at improving regional human rights standards. Clearly, Australia’s own human rights violations significantly diminish its ability to sincerely question the practices of other nations in such dialogues, as well as its capacity to engender a greater respect for human rights in the Asia-Pacific. This imperils the stability and future prosperity of the region, which hinges on human security underpinned by a respect for human rights. Moreover, Australia’s disregard for international human rights norms also jeopardises its upcoming bid for a seat on the 2018 UN Human Rights Council.
By forcibly detaining asylum seekers in a punitive manner and incentivising their return to their countries of origin, mandatary offshore detention breaches numerous articles of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Whilst disregard for international law may benefit the domestic political agenda, it does not benefit Australia’s strategic interests. In Australia’s 2016 defence white paper, the survival of the global rules-based order is deemed to be integral to Australia’s future security and prosperity. By disregarding international law, Australia effectively erodes one of the key pillars of this rules-based order and its ability to defend it. For example, this diminishes the integrity with which Australia’s calls upon China to respect the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in the South China Sea.
Of further concern are the potential ramifications that Australia’s border protection policies will have for regional development. Developing countries already host around 80% of the world’s refugees. Many of these countries like Jordan and Lebanon are located in geopolitically sensitive regions in which there are pre-existing ethnic and sectarian tensions. In the Asia-Pacific, India, Malaysia and Thailand house many of the region’s refugees.
Australia’s closed-door asylum seeker policy combined with its relatively small humanitarian intake does little to alleviate the burden of these developing nations. If anything, by deterring refugees from leaving what are often transit countries, Australia places increasing strain on its neighbours. Whilst refugees can provide economic benefits, their rights to work in these countries are not guaranteed. Australia’s policies therefore have the potential to inadvertently slow the very regional development from which it seeks to benefit.
Most alarmingly is the precedent set by Australia’s border policies. As of 2016, Australia remains the only country in the world with a policy of mandatory offshore detention. Yet, as asylum seekers continue to converge upon Europe, many in the European political establishment are looking upon Australia’s policies with increasing favour. Some in Brussels are even contemplating instituting a European border force to deport asylum seekers. If Europe was to seriously follow Australia in implementing boat turn backs or offshore detention, the consequences would be catastrophic. Aside from seriously undermining respect for human rights, international law and the functionality of the international refugee system, Europe would exacerbate the already precarious economic and security situations in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which collectively host millions of Syrian refugees.
Although there is no easy solution, alternatives that better accord with international law and human rights standards do exist. Malcolm Fraser’s regional solution, which allowed for the successful integration of over 70,000 refugees from former Indochina, is clear evidence of this. Not only can Australia do better, it is also very much in its interests to do so.
Henry Storey is completing a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Politics and International Studies at the University of Melbourne.
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