How Australian Setbacks Could Inform Global Refugee Response

Australians protest their government's policies against asylum seekers held in offshore detention. Melbourne, Australia, April 30, 2016. (Recep Sakar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Australia’s leaders have long been criticized by United Nations officials and international human rights observers over their policies toward refugees. While politicians and policymakers have resisted change in response to these criticisms until now, events of the past month indicate that actors working at a regional and national level may be taking matters out of their hands. Lessons from these recent developments could help formulate improved management of the unprecedented global movement of people at present, including the “more humane and coordinated approach” being sought at a major UN summit next month.

The governments of Australia and Papua New Guinea announced last week that they would close a center located on the latter’s Manus Island, which had been used to detain and assess the refugee claims of asylum seekers intercepted while attempting to reach Australia. Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court had declared the center illegal in April this year, rejecting a constitutional amendment from 2014 to facilitate its southern neighbor’s policies.

While no date has been given for the closure, and there is not yet an indication of where the more than 850 individuals housed at the facility might go, it is another blow to Australia’s established platform of using facilities in poorer third countries as a means of refusing entry to any undocumented asylum seekers arriving on its own shores.

The Papua New Guinea decision joins legal rulings delivered by Australia’s own courts, including the striking down of a proposed refugee swap deal with Malaysia in 2011—an arrangement that might have otherwise become the norm—which was found to contravene Australia’s migration act by failing to afford those involved any protection from further persecution.

Not long before the announcement of the Manus Island closure, The Guardian also published more than 2,000 leaked reports documenting assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm, and other incidents among detainees of another Australian detention center, on the small island nation of Nauru. Analysis of these reports revealed that children were involved in more than half the incidents, despite making up only about 18% of those in the facility during the two-year reporting period.

The initial official response to the exposé was not promising for advocates of change. Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton accused the Nauru detainees of fabricating the abuse claims in an attempt to be brought to Australia, while the government has yet to indicate whether it will conduct a wider public inquiry into the controversy. Nonetheless, the journalists and whistleblowers involved have significantly challenged one of the major design elements of Australia’s system of “offshore processing,” which replaced an already troubled domestic detention regime and added a layer of great distance and detachment between members of the country’s existing population and the treatment of those seeking to join them.

Under this system, natural and government-enforced visa barriers have rendered reporting from the frontlines of Australia’s campaign against asylum seekers virtually impossible. This has been compounded by employees of the detention centers being private contractors, who are not subject to the same oversight as public sector employees and are required to sign non-disclosure agreements around their experiences. The effect of this culture of silence has been enhanced government control of the debate around its policies, which it largely frames as protecting Australia’s borders and, on humanitarian grounds, fighting people smugglers by disincentivizing asylum seekers from attempting to reach the country.

At the same time, Australia’s leaders have promoted the country as boasting one of the highest per capita intakes of refugees in the world. This claim, which refers only to those coming from official UNHCR resettlement programs, leads to a false characterization of others seeking Australia’s shores outside these channels as “illegals” and “queue jumpers.” In reality, somewhere around 90% of those held in its offshore detention centers are assessed to be refugees under international law.

The end result of these policies and warped public debates is a furthering of the trend of the global refugee burden being largely borne by countries that can provide fewer economic and other opportunities for arrivals and have often made fewer institutional commitments to human rights. According to the latest figures, developing countries host about 86% of refugees under the UN’s mandate.

Of significant concern in this respect is the fact that, as I have previously documented, Australian policies have been widely studied, and in some form already replicated, by European leaders in particular. Further adoption of Australian methods anywhere in the world would likely jeopardize any efforts to shift the burden back from the developing to the developed world. It would also frustrate efforts to forge some new sense of international cooperation around managing refugees and migration more generally, such as the upcoming UN summit and its promotion of a new global compact on these issues. These goals seem unattainable when Australia can claim a role as a leader in refugee resettlement efforts, and is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and other relevant human rights instruments, whose responsibilities it has until now abrogated without noticeable repercussions.

There is, then, some hope to be taken from the fact that even with its continued refusal to admit any failing of its refugee policies, the government in Canberra’s options for effectively pursuing these policies are increasingly limited. Further promotion of this fact and more thorough investigation of the true nature of Australia’s refugee platform will likely convince other governments that it is far from optimal. A parliamentary delegation from Denmark is already reported to be visiting Nauru next week to conduct a fact-finding mission of this nature, following suggestions from some Danish politicians that the Australian system might be replicated in Europe.

Looking at the factors that have recently narrowed the Australian playing field might be instructive for others seeking to further curb its government’s behavior and guard against its wider adoption elsewhere. International institutions such as the UN might be at a disadvantage when we consider that one of these key factors has been the employment of national legislative frameworks, but it could play a role in marrying these to international commitments and in empowering developing countries to recognize their own risks and opportunities in this respect. Any mechanisms that can promote more transparency and accountability around management of refugees in all countries would also be worthwhile advancing to the fullest of its abilities.