Australia and the “refugee-proof fence”

On a small island, out of sight and out of mind, some 2,600 kilometres northwest of the Australian coast, thousands of refugees have been held behind barbed wire in a high-security detention centre while their asylum applications are being processed.

Currently, around 700 people are held at the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre (IDC). The most recent refugees to arrive at the Centre were the 54 men from the middle-east who were caught near Scott Reef on July 31 and constitute the first of the “Australian 800” being deported to Malaysia in the new “refugee-swap agreement”.

The bilateral agreement signed between Australia and Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur on July 25 this year is the latest in line of Australian refugee policies. Australia will trade 800 unprocessed ‘boat people’ for 4,000 of Malaysia’s processed asylum-seekers.

The deportation time to Malaysia was promised not to exceed 72 hours. However, according to Immigration Minister Chris Bowen the first group of refugees currently awaiting transit from the Christmas Island Detention Centre may have to remain on the island several weeks since practical arrangements are still to be finalized in Malaysia.

The fact that a new boat arrived only a few days after the agreement was signed shows the failure of the deterrent effect that the Australian Government claims the agreement to have. YouTube videos showing refugees being deported to Malaysia are the latest of the Governments attempts to scare people from boarding boats to Australia.

International human rights organizations such as Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) see the exchange as a grave violation of human rights that further adds to Australia’s failure in handling the flow of asylum seekers. Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of HRW’s Asia Division says that “Australia is using Malaysia as a dumping ground for boat people it does not want and in the process walking away from its commitments to follow the 1951 Refugees Convention”.

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees with its 1967 Protocol is the key document that codified rights of refugees in international law.

As emphasized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Introductory Note, the 1951 Convention is underpinned by the fundamental principles of non-discrimination, non-penalization and non-refoulement.

By signing up to this Convention, Australia has undertaken international obligations concerning the status, rights and treatment of refugees. However, policies such as the refugee exchange with Malaysia are contrary to many of these obligations.

To leave vulnerable refugees in a prison-like detention centre is to punish the victims. Serco, the company in charge of the Christmas Island Detention Centre ensures that they “focus on the [detainees’] dignity, respect and well-being”. However, after visiting the Centre, Louise Allen from Amnesty Australia tells another story. She says one man who had spent more than 16 months in detention called the Centre “a cemetery for those who were barely still alive”. Similarly, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, Mr. Ian Rintoul, describes the Centre as a “factory for mental illness”.

In June this year, Australia was reviewed in the 17th session of the United Nation’s ‘Universal Periodic Review’ (UPR). The UPR is the new recommendatory mechanism to monitor each member state’s compliance with international human rights obligations. 

In a public statement evaluating the review, Amnesty International deplores that Australia has rejected the recommendation of adopting a national Human Rights Act in order for Australia as a dualist state to incorporate international human rights obligations into national law. This would create a new level of pressure to comply with international human rights treaties such as the Refugee Convention. 

On the contrary, the Australian Government has responded by walking away from its treaty obligations, leaving the faith of 800 refugees in the hands of a State who has not signed the Refugee Convention and is known for its poor treatment of refugees.

The fact that Australia also continuously punishes victims by “storing them” in a detention centre that is even recognized by the Australian Human Rights Commission as resembling a prison, further proves Australia’s failure to uphold its international obligations under the Convention.

The many promises from both parties that the human rights of the refugees will be respected are purely political and have no binding force in law in any of the countries.

Phil Robertson from HRW describes the tougher refugee policy as “a desperate move by a government with falling poll numbers”, in other words a political strategy for the Gillard Administration to win back support to the expense of vulnerable refugees.

Despite the agreement, people still risk their lives taking the treacherous journey in fragile and overloaded boats. The tragic accident last December shows just how dangerous these trips are. A boat filled with over a hundred refugees was smashed against the cliffs of the Christmas Island and 50 people lost their lives.

Since the agreement was announced in May, 537 people have still come across the sea from Asia. The “swap-solution” with Malaysia is not a solution, but only a way to deny an extremely vulnerable group of people their fundamental rights.

“Leaving your country for good is one of the hardest decisions you can be forced to make. It means a break with all that you know – your family, your livelihood, your friends”, says Najeeba Wazefadost who came to Australia as a refugee from Afghanistan. After a tough time ‘behind the fence’, Najeeba and her family were granted to stay in Australia.

Indefinite detention of asylum seekers behind electrified wires on a remote island and a refugee trade contract with Malaysia severely violates fundamental rights and freedoms of one of the most vulnerable groups in society, already denied basic rights and safety in their own countries. 

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