The Abbott government has announced Australia will not be accepting asylum seekers applications made through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Indonesia after July 1 this year.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has dug in and further reinforced “fortress Australia” by lowering the number of refugee places available in Indonesia to 450, down from 600. But the announcement could also have wider effects and apply to all asylum seekers waiting for resettlement in countries like Iraq, Syria, Iran and Malaysia.

So what does this mean for Australia and for people seeking asylum still located in Indonesia, the country known as “Australia’s waiting room”?

Why does Australia lock up refugees anyway?

Australia is the only country in the world that actively detains people who do not have a current visa — regardless of circumstances or the legitimacy of their claims. Australia’s Migration Act 1958 forces all “unlawful non-citizens” into mandatory detention, and while the system is theoretically supposed to help keep vulnerable people safe and identify who they are, it has come under fire from critics who claim it “disproportionately affects asylum seekers” and is used by the government to detain people over “very prolonged periods”.

The Refugee Council of Australia says on its website:

“There is no time limit on immigration detention in Australia. This means that, under Australian law, a person can be detained indefinitely — theoretically for the course of their natural life — unless the Australian Government decides to grant them a visa, or they agree to leave the country.”

As at October 31, 2014, there were 3084 people recorded in immigration detention facilities, both offshore and onshore.

Why has Indonesia been singled out?

Indonesia is the first stop for many people attempting to seek refuge in Australia. The south-east Asian country has as many as 10,000 to 15,000 people currently holding refugee or asylum seeker status.

The number of vulnerable people in the area has led to a rise in people smuggling and human trafficking, a fact much publicised by the Australian media and government. The Abbott government previously likened the situation to a “war”, saying, as a reason to hide information about asylum seeker boats: “If we were at war, we wouldn’t be giving out information that is of use to the enemy just because we might have an idle curiosity about it ourselves.”

Despite the Abbott government’s stance, people smugglers are determined to keep the market profitable, even offering deals like, “safe arrival or money-back” and setting sail for neighbouring New Zealand. Figures vary widely on how much it costs, but for people fleeing war zones under threat of death, with sometimes only the clothes on their backs, it’s expensive. Figures range anywhere from $500 to $1000 per person, with some facing figures ranging in the thousands after extortion by the smugglers — just like real war, there are definitely those who profit.

Some have labelled this aggressive stance by the government on people smugglers as a way to “criminalise asylum seekers themselves”, by conflating people smuggling (illegal) and seeking asylum (legal).

What does the announcement mean?

The new edict, as Morrison says, is “taking the sugar off the table”, further adding that “the refugee convention wasn’t set up so people can go forum shopping”.

The announcement is an effort to make sure people who come to Indonesia “don’t jump the queue”, as MPs so eloquently put it — that they wait in their home countries until their asylum seeker applications for Australia are processed.

The problem is it takes time for these requests to be processed, and as the Australian Human Rights Commission pointed out on its website: “The Australian Government has indicated that in the 2013-14 financial years, it intends to provide 13,750 places in the Humanitarian Program.” This is down from the 20,000 when Labor was in office.

The limited number of spots means asylum seekers will be forced remain in countries where they are under threat of torture or death, often for years, as Australia considers their applications. For many, approval, if it comes at all, will be too late.

What do other countries do?

Other countries that, like Australia, have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention approach the issue of asylum seekers more delicately.

For instance, a person who arrives in Denmark without a visa is not held in mandatory detention but is referred to as a “spontaneous asylum seeker“, with cases assessed quickly. The United Kingdom’s policy provides people who are waiting for their applications to be assessed with residential housing and allows for their children to attend a free state school while they wait. And the website for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services details the step for seeking asylum as:

“STEP ONE: Arrive in the U.S.
STEP TWO: Apply for Asylum”

The number of refugees other Western countries accept is also drastically different, with Australia taking far fewer per capita. The UNHCR Global Trends Report 2010 shows that Australia was lagging behind other countries in its intake of refugees. For every one refugee in Australia, there are 1018 “natives”. As a country, we’re doing worse than the UK, the Netherlands, Austria and larger number of countries close to global hotspots; Jordan has three natives for every refugee.

This new announcement is just one in a long line of Australian governments trying to stop asylum seekers from being permanently resettled. But if anything, this new policy will only prompt more boats to arrive on Australia shores, bypassing Indonesia entirely. Lowering the intake number and making sure people have to wait in war zones leaves them no choice but to come to Australia by boat.

In an effort by the Abbott government to stop people “jumping the queue” it has made the queue intolerable.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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