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Good to Know: The Issue With Australia's 'Boat People'


Who are the 'boat people' and why have they been coming to Australia?
How do asylum seekers get to Australia?
What is Australia's Stance on Asylum Seekers Arriving by Boat?
Off-Shore Processing
The Problem With Off-Shore Processing 
Now What?


Who are the 'boat people' and why have they been coming to Australia?

  'Boat people' became a term used in Australian media and politics to refer to immigrants arriving into the country illegally by boat. Along with 'boat people' the terms 'refugees' and 'asylum seekers' have been used at times interchangeably. Which is which? According to international law a refugee is defined as a person who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." This is outlined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a binding agreement that was signed in Geneva in July 1951 by 26 countries, Australia included. We'll come back to this later.

  'Asylum seekers' are people who may have fled their country for the above reasons but have not yet been granted official refugee status. The reasons they seek asylum need to be verified by the government of the country they seek asylum in. If that government concedes the asylum seeker's fears are founded the asylum seeker is granted the status of refugee and processed in accordance with that country's refugee settlement process. If that government sees fit to decline an asylum seeker refugee status then the asylum seeker becomes an illegal immigrant and may be sent back to where they came from.

  So while Australia's 'boat people' may be refugees they are technically asylum seekers until they are deemed otherwise. And how many actually turn out to be refugees? The Australian Human Rights Commission reported in 2014 that out of the asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia, 9 out of 10 had proven to be legitimate refugees. This means that  90% of Australia's 'boat people' had a "well-founded fear of being persecuted".

  The asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia typically come from countries experiencing conflict. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2012 the five countries Australia received the most asylum seekers by boat from were Afghanistan (2940 asylum seekers), Sri Lanka (2334), Iran (1317), Pakistan (784) and Iraq (440). Other countries include, but are not limited to, Bangladesh, China and Vietnam. 

  This video released by Amnesty International Australia exemplifies the kinds of situations these refugees are escaping. Farida, a teen from Afghanistan, talks about how her father brought them to Australia after being threatened by the Taliban. According to a report released by the United Nations Security Council in 2008 there had been an increase in 'security incidents' inflicted by extremist groups. In particular the report noted "armed clashes, abductions, improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks" that  had risen from 508 in 2003, to 6,792 in October of 2008. As Farida explains in the below video, at the time her family was there the Taliban were recruiting young men. When her father refused to hand his son over to the them they threatened to kill him. You can read more about Farida's story here.

  Asylum seekers from different regions will leave for different reasons. You can find more testimonies from refugees who have left their countries for various reasons here. But all are driven by the need to find safety and security. Imagine what it would take for you leave your home, community, friends, extended family, all your belongings, taking only what you can carry and embark on a journey where you're not even sure of the destination. You don't make that decision lightly. You exhaust every other possible option before you set out on a journey where you risk losing everything, including your life and the survival of your family. People don't take those sorts of risks unless they are desperate.
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How do asylum seekers get to Australia?

  There is little published as to the exact routes asylum seekers take to get to Australia, but suffice it to say it is not an easy nor obvious route to take. Nor is it legal. According to a paper published by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) those who facilitate the journey of the asylum seekers range from "loose amateur groups... through to transnational crime groups specialising in trafficking migrants". The paper highlights that the illegal movement of so many people through so many immigration check points is indicative of a well organised, transnational criminal syndicate (or multiple such syndicates) behind it. As you can see in the above video, Farida's father was approached and offered passage for a payment of $10,000 - $12,000 USD but details of the journey would not be provided.

  Even without operational details, just by looking at a map you can imagine how intricate the international people-smuggling network must be. As previously mentioned people from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq make up a high percentage of those who have sought asylum in Australia by boat. According to the report by the AIC these asylum seekers make the journey to Indonesia, from where they then board the boats that take them to Australia. Look at how many countries are between Afghanistan and Indonesia. The fact that so many people can travel between these places undetected, or without being stopped, indicates that not only are people-smuggling networks in operation, but that they most likely involve officials and people in power.

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What is Australia's Stance on Asylum Seekers Arriving by Boat?

  The Australian government have taken a hardline approach against asylum seekers arriving by boat. In 2013 the Australian government launched 'Operation Sovereign Borders', a joint task force commissioned to "protecting Australia's borders, to stamp out people smuggling, and to prevent people risking their lives at sea." The operation boasts "700 days since the last successful people smuggling boat to Australia".

  In 2013 the SBS published a timeline of asylum seeker boat tragedies since 2001, and in 2015 published an interactive graph outlining deaths that have occurred in association with Australian borders. The graph does not exclusively pertain to deaths of asylum seekers arriving by boat but does show that hundreds of asylum seekers have died trying to obtain a better life for themselves in Australia. Published statistics show that since Operation Sovereign Borders began, unauthorized boat arrivals in Australia have seen a dramatic drop from 301 in 2013 boats to just one as of March 2015.

  Both the Australian Liberal and Labor parties strongly support the consistent refusal of unauthorized boat entries into Australia and claim to do so in the name of protecting Australia's borders and discouraging the people-smuggling networks. And to assist with this they operate off-shore processing.
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Off-Shore Processing

  The off-shore processing of asylum seekers was brought in by the then Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, in 2001. The premise is that Australia turns the boats of asylum seekers away, redirecting them to what are officially called "Regional Processing Centres". The program has ebbed and flowed since its inception, depending on changes in the Australian government but, as mentioned, the process now has the backing of the two major Australian political parties. The Refugee Council of Australia have published a breakdown of the timeline of off-shore processing, along with some key statistics. You can also find here a guide to Australia's off-shore processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, released by the parliament of Australia. The statistics in the latter will show you how many asylum seekers have been processed monthly in each centre since 2012, the breakdown of genders and the adult and child constituents, where asylum seekers have come from and where the ones who have been processed have been sent. There have been thousands of asylum seekers. Statistics published by the Australian Human Rights Commission showed that as of June 2014 the average time an asylum seeker spent in immigration detention was eleven months and twenty days, but that at least 168 people had been in detention for over two years.

  These "Regional Processing Centres" are detention centres in all but name. One was established on the small island nation of Nauru in Micronesia and one on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. The Australian government are careful to point out that they do not run these centres and have released the agreements made with both Nauru and Papua New Guinea on the DFAT (Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) website. The centres technically come under the sovereign jurisdictions of the respective country in which they are in. Australia's role is to fund and assist the program. And fund it it does. This report, published on the Parliament of Australia's website, indicates that according to current budget trajectory, by the end of the 2016-2017 fiscal year, and since only 2015, the Australian government will have spent well over $1 billion AUD on off-shore processing.
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The Problem With Off-Shore Processing

  Off-shore processing has attracted criticism worldwide for a number of reasons. The first is that by refusing to give asylum to those seeking it Australia is seen to be breaking international law. As mentioned earlier Australia was one of the 26 countries that signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This convention stipulates that it is a human right for all people, worldwide, to be able to seek asylum from persecution. And it is the duty of the country who signed the convention to assist the refugee. Article 31.1 states:

  "The Contracting States (Australia in this case) shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened..., enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence."

Article 33.1 states:

  "No Contracting State (Australia) shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened...".

  The Australian government has been very careful regarding their approach to off-shore processing. For example the above convention does stipulate that countries are permitted to refuse refugees if accepting them compromises national security. The Australian government has packaged Operation Sovereign Borders as one that protects the integrity and security of Australian borders, justifying the refusal of boats as a sovereign right to protect Australia. In addition many services in the establishment and maintenance of off-shore detention centres, such as building, maintenance and security, have been outsourced by the government to private companies. This obscures accountability and availability of information and allows the government to delegate responsibility to the private sector. Read an example here. Furthermore in the off-shore agreements made with Nauru and Papua New Guinea it is clearly stated that Australia undertakes these agreements based on the premise that asylum seekers are treated with dignity and respect and are provided for in accordance with the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. So in rhetoric Australia can be seen as adhering to international law regarding human rights.

  A report released by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2013 found Australia to be neglecting its obligations to refugees in the off-shore processing system. While off-shore processing itself is not illegal, as a participating country in the agreements Australia is obliged to ensure asylum seekers are provided for adequately. The commission indicated its concern that Australia was not ensuring the protection of asylum seekers, that the people in the centres were held in inadequate conditions that did not adhere to human rights standards and that asylum seekers were being kept in arbitrary detention, stripping them of their freedom and keeping them locked in closed detention indefinitely. You can read a very in-depth report here on the conditions asylum seekers are kept in in Nauru. This report is published right there on the Parliament of Australia website. It is exhaustive but worth a look. The 3rd chapter Living Conditions at the Regional Processing Centre on Nauru goes into great detail, including describing the materials used to build the tents people are put in, how crowded these tents get, resulting in a lack of privacy and poor hygiene and health, and how hot the tents get given the topography and climate of the area. It talks of mould, rats, mosquitos and "respiratory complaints arising from exposure to high levels of phosphate dust." Many asylum seekers in fact found it hard to even access drinking water. The report also raises concerns of sexual abuse, lack of education for children, and the entrapment of asylum seekers in such closed-off environments that they cannot easily seek help from services that should be otherwise readily available to citizens (medical, legal, psychological, etc.). The committee conducting the report concluded in no uncertain terms that "the present conditions and circumstance at the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru are not adequate, appropriate or safe for the asylum seekers detained there. The committee believes that the Commonwealth must accept ultimate responsibility for conditions at the centre...".
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Now What?

  In April 2016 the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled that the processing centre on Manus Island was "unconstitutional and illegal detention" of asylum seekers and refugees. Since then the governments of Papua New Guinea and Australia have been in negotiation regarding closing the centre down. Australia's Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, conceded in August that Australia has agreed to the closure of the centre, however the reason highlighted for this was because the boats have now stopped and Australia "can do without the capacity that was once needed on Manus Island". In the wake of this heightened international criticism private companies contracted by the Australian government have started to pull their involvement from the centres. Wilson Security, for example, who provides guards to both centres has announced it will not be renewing its contract.

  Still, however, Nauru operates. The Australian government's position is still very clear, boats that try to enter Australia unlawfully will be refused. And conflict still compels people to leave their homes in search of safety and security.
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  All news is inevitably biased, especially regarding such big issues. I'm mortified at the conditions into which my country is prepared to off-load thousands of desperate people escaping war-torn conditions. And not only that but spend over $1 billion to do it and still be unable to facilitate the process adequately enough to ensure asylum seekers have full access to drinking water. Given I pay taxes to this government, inevitably my biases are going to come through here too. But the purpose of this site is not to get you on board with what anyone believes. Read the information. Ask the questions. Build your own opinion and make it a well-informed one.

  On each point I have laid out here I have provided links to further information. There is a lot, I know, so if that much reading makes you want to punch yourself in the face I have included a few links to some key resources below. While considering all the information, ask the questions...

- Has the Australian government made the right move regarding people-smuggling? Does this action deter the people-smugglers? Has it worked to eliminate the international crime syndicates that facilitate the smugglers?

- If the Australian government has made the right move, in what ways has this ensured national security? How did the boats threaten national security?

- If off-shore processing is the answer could it be done better? Are there more effective ways to spend the $1 billion?

- If off-shore processing should not be conducted, but the flow of asylum seekers is considered dangerous to not only Australia's national security but to the safety of the people on the boats, what then is the solution?

- Has Australia played any part to fuel the conflicts these refugees are fleeing? 

- Will all such measures Australia is taking keep people who face persecution and/or death in their home countries from attempting to seek refuge in a safer place? 
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- The Australian Human Rights Commission: Facts on Asylum Seekers and Refugees   - This site also has loads of reports and statistics to do with the commission.

- Parliament of Australia - Australia's Offshore Processing of Asylum Seekers in Nauru and PNG: A Quick Guide to Statistics and Resources - Excellent resource. The guide has a lot of information itself but at the bottom links to many other key resources if you want to look into it further.

- Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection: Operation Sovereign Borders and Immigration Detention Statistics

- NGOs such as Amnesty International and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) will link to statistics, reports and conventions countries have agreed to that support international law.

- Open Political Economy Network (OPEN) - a think tank geared towards breaking down political and social barriers enabling equality.
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