If you were to pick a year to seek asylum in Australia, it probably wouldn’t be 2014. You’d be better advised to go back to the ’80s. Since 1989, Australia has made it progressively harder to enter on humanitarian grounds.
Last week’s announcement that temporary protection visas would be reintroduced was the latest change to asylum seeker policy this year. Independent Senator Nick Xenophon said he had voted for the bill because doing nothing would be worse for asylum seekers, but critics say the new requirements will be harder for vulnerable people to prove their asylum claims. Although the bill has been amended to increase Australia’s humanitarian intake, it also restricts the definition of a refugee. As the Senate debated the merits of the legislation on Thursday, The Guardian reported that detainees on Manus Island had sewn their lips together. Their hunger strike is in protest against the length of their detention.
One of the positives of the new bill is the amendment that children on Christmas Island will be released from detention. But Australia hasn’t been kind to refugee or asylum seeker children living in the community this year, either. The government conducted age determination meetings and gave people who said they were children new dates of birth, reclassifying them as adults. Children have gone on the run to avoid going into a detention centre. For anyone wondering why, The National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014 provided some clues.
Even those children who could not be classified as adults, such as baby Ferouz, had a tough year. In October, a judge found that Ferouz was not eligible for Australian citizenship even though he was born in Australia. This was in spite of Ferouz’s ineligibility for citizenship in his parents’ birth country because of his ethnicity. The case impacted 100 other children.
It hasn’t been a great year for pregnant asylum seekers or their unborn children either. Only this week, two refugees came from Nauru to Darwin to give birth. They were living in the community in Nauru but were taken to a detention centre upon their arrival in Australia. They refused to get off the bus, claiming they had been told they’d be living in the community in Darwin. They spent three days on the bus before eventually going into the centre. Some reports say the women fainted and were taken into the centre, but Immigration Minister Scott Morrison denies this.
Back on Nauru, women were requesting abortions earlier in the year, believing their children would die on the island. Their concerns are backed up by the infant mortality rate on Nauru, as well as reports that the facilities in the detention centre are not adequate for pregnant women. Women who were moved from Nauru to give birth in Brisbane were separated from their children on more than one occasion.
Of course, women and children are not the only groups affected by Australia’s policy on asylum seekers. Two men died this year under Australia’s care while they waited for their claims to be processed. The first was Reza Berati, who was beaten to death during riots on Manus Island. Berati’s case draws attention to the tensions caused by the existence of a detention centre in Papua New Guinea. The circumstances around his death were unclear until May, when a report named his attacker.
The second man to die in limbo was Hamid Kehazaei. The circumstances around Kehazaei’s death are much clearer than Berati’s. He cut his foot on Manus Island and had to be taken to Brisbane after it became infected. He was given medical care too late, and he was declared brain dead on September 3.
Both PNG and Nauru approved asylum seekers’ claims this year, but this does not necessarily amount to a happy ending. In October, letters threatening refugees were circulated around the island of Nauru. They were delivered to refugees’ places of employment and the detention centre. Within weeks, four unaccompanied minors were in hospital after being attacked by locals. Similar attacks have continued since. On Manus, the riots that killed Reza Berati and threats from locals are indications that being resettled in PNG might not be an ideal outcome for asylum seekers.
Not only did Australia negotiate resettlement for asylum seekers in Nauru and PNG, we also deported people back to their countries of origin. The consequences of doing so are not all that surprising. The Taliban kidnapped and tortured Zainullah Naseri after he was returned to Afghanistan. According to The Saturday Paper, the Taliban did not believe him when he said Australia had deported him. Another Hazara man was charged $25,000 for his deportation to Afghanistan in October.
More recently, the Australian government intercepted a boat of asylum seekers off the coast of Indonesia and sent it back to Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government arrested 37 Tamils aboard the boat and charged them with illegally leaving the country.
Of course, a huge part of government policy has been trying to prevent people from arriving on Nauru or Manus in the first place. The strategy to achieve this is by turning back boats “where it is safe to do so”. The results of this? In July, Morrison refused to confirm or deny the existence 157 people being held on a Customs vessel at sea. Later those aboard told lawyers they had been shown lifeboats and told to find their own way back to India. This didn’t eventuate. These same people eventually arrived in Western Australia, only to be taken to Nauru in the middle of the night.
In addition to turning back boats, the government arranged a resettlement deal with Cambodia in September. Under this arrangement, the Cambodian government will accept genuine refugees, and Australia will provide Cambodia with $40 million in additional aid. When the deal was signed, there were protests outside the Australian embassy in Cambodia, with many arguing that Cambodia struggles enough to look after its own people. The arrangement also attracted scrutiny from human rights groups. They raised concerns about corruption and Cambodia’s own human rights record.
Morrison followed up this deal in November with more controversy. He announced that people whose applications for asylum were made through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Indonesia since June would not be accepted. He said that this would reduce the movement of refugees to Indonesia.
Over the past year, the events outlined above have prompted criticism from the UNHCR, Amnesty International and even former Serco employees. Members of the navy have come forward to talk about the impact of Australia’s asylum seeker policies on their mental health. There are more allegations of rape and sexual assault in detention centres as well as testimony to poor living conditions. Suicide attempts have risen.
All of this happened in 2014. Policies of mandatory detention have been in place since the ’90s. Are we deterring you yet?