The ongoing refugee crisis in the Australia’s offshore detention centres on Manus Island sheds new light on the country’s tough and divisive immigration policies.
There are still about 600 men in the Australia’s offshore detention centre on Manus Island (Papua New Guinea). Officially, the camp shut down on October 31. The asylum seekers refused to relocate to the East Lorengau transit centre, also on Manus Island. They argue that in the past it failed to satisfy safe conditions for refugees, including incidents of robbery and assaults. “We believe these fears should be respected and satisfactorily addressed,” commented UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville.
At the same time, the situation in the abandoned Manus camp has arisen to the level of “humanitarian emergency,” according to the UN. In a letter to Jucinda Ardern and Justin Trudeau, PM of New Zealand and Canada, the detainees urged for help. Interestingly, Ardern offer to welcome 150 refugees from the Manus group has been rejected by Australia.
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Last year, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea established that restraining personal freedom of asylum seekers is unconstitutional, ruling against continuing the existence of the Australia’s offshore camp.
The ruling could have prompted broader reflection on Australia’s immigration policies, given the immigration limbo they created for hundreds of people fleeing persecution. Yet Australia continues remedying only the immediate problem, that is, where to move the detainees. There are no talks on long-term solutions that would bring the asylum seekers opportunity to settle in Australia.
In line with this mindset, authorities hope to move the asylum seekers to Nauru Island, where another detention centre has functioned on and off since 2001. But many critics of the proposal emphasize that conditions in Nauru camp are equally squalid, at best.
“Few other countries go to such lengths to deliberately inflict suffering on people seeking safety and freedom,” said Anna Neistat, Senior Director for Research at Amnesty International in relation to the situation in Nauru.
Deterrence Above All
Every year Australia accepts about 13,000 refugees, mostly based on recommendations from the UN refugee agency. The main shift in the Australian immigration policy occurred however in October 2013, after the Liberal-National coalition came to power. Back then the government decided to undertake deterrence measure against undocumented migrants trying to reach Australia’s shore by boat.
Under military Operation Sovereign Borders, the patrolling units started intercepting migrant boats and returning them towards Indonesia. The government argues that the initiative targeted smuggling gang network.
Both the patrolling operation and the negligent conditions in the offshore centres have been devised to deter future asylum seekers. The only problem is that everyone has the right to seek asylum and punishing those who fled persecution – no matter the way of entering Australia – is against binding international human rights conventions.
For this reason, while the current tough system receives support from the ruling coalition and the opposition, it has not escaped harsh criticisms from human rights groups. “The system has led to misery, suffering, and even suicide,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch.
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