A Source of Shame: Australia’s Failure to Uphold the Human Rights of Refugees

By Sohee Park Kwon

Australia’s public health response to COVID-19 demonstrates a double standard that blatantly disregards refugees and asylum seekers’ fundamental right to health.

From the early months of the pandemic, the Australian government has implemented social-distancing measures and conducted thousands of coronavirus tests for the general public, but not for refugees and asylum seekers who remain confined to small spaces in places of detention, despite warnings against this from Australian public health experts. Youth detention centres across Queensland, where conditions are similar, have already become coronavirus hotspots. Australia, therefore, needs to urgently prioritise the health of those in detention facilities and prevent the devastating impacts of COVID-19 through releasing refugees and asylum seekers.

As a founding member of the United Nations, Australia was a prominent leader in the international human rights system during the creation of the UN Charter in 1945 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. In recent decades, however, Australia has failed in upholding its human rights commitments, especially in its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers — a group that currently suffers “some of the highest levels of rights abuses in the world.”

Australia has refused to abide by the principles of many of the milestone documents that it helped draft, including rights enshrined in the UDHR, namely Article 9, whereby no one should be “subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile,” and Article 14, which outlines all people’s “right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

As a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, Australia needs to move beyond its current hypocrisy. Under international treaties like the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Australia has further specific obligations to protect the physical and mental health of all people under its authority, including those in immigration detention. Yet, Australia has presided over appalling abuses, particularly in detention facilities, including deaths through medical neglect and murder; forced family separation; as well as rape, sexual abuse, and child abuse.

Consecutive Australian governments have long tried to shield themselves from public scrutiny by moving refugees and asylum seekers to detention centres offshore to the Pacific islands. Although the Manus Island centre in Papua New Guinea closed in 2017, many refugees have been transferred to the country’s capital, Port Moresby, where some have been relocated again to another Australian-funded detention centre. Other refugees were transferred under the short-lived ‘Medevac’ legislation to Mantra Bell City Hotel in Melbourne and Kangaroo Point Hotel in Queensland, where maltreatment persists as they are assaulted by guards, supplied with inadequate food, and provided insufficient psychiatric care. Beyond their façade of hospitality, these Alternative Places of Detention (APODs) ultimately function as prisons to contain and control refugees and the negligence of the government has even led to more suicide attempts by detainees in both locations.

APODs escape the symbolic display of exclusion that detention centres present. Yet, for refugees and asylum seekers, they are primarily penal sites of violence guised as benign civil instruments of protection. During the pandemic, Australia has weaponised these seemingly welcoming spaces as places of confinement and has placed an oppressive weight of captivity for those detained. Many Australians by now are very familiar with the strain caused by compulsory lockdown, even when structured around numerical COVID-19 case goals and likely dates of relaxation of restriction. However, the strain of being indefinitely detained with no clear future date of release is undoubtedly more stressful and draining. 

For decades, Australia has detained refugees in inhumane conditions, leading to disastrous mental health outcomes for these people. On Nauru and Manus Island, devastating abuses and traumas have destroyed the mental well-being of many refugees and asylum seekers, who were reported to be 200 times more likely to commit self-harm, with women at a significantly higher risk of self-harm and suicide. Australia’s cruel treatment of children seeking refuge is another source of shame, with one ten-year-old boy on Nauru, for instance, making repeated attempts to kill himself.

A particularly disturbing recent case is that of a Sri Lankan refugee known by the pseudonym Alex, who was detained for 11 years in Australia, and as a result, was separated from his family for that time, never meeting his own son. Despite the government finding that he was owed protection, he has been caught in an arcane legal limbo that has subjected him to an apparently limitless incarceration. Alex’s experience of imprisonment and forced movement across various onshore detention centres, however, is not isolated. Australia has used ‘bureaucratic inertia’ and unnecessary delays in processing to act as a deterrent to prospective refugees and to possibly encourage asylum seekers to return to their home countries.

Australia has contravened the principle of non-refoulement under international law that prohibits states from returning those seeking refuge to their country of origin or departure, by expelling asylum seekers through deterrence policies and by forcibly intercepting boats with asylum seekers. Since 2013, the state has returned 873 individuals finding refuge. In practice, Australia’s policies towards refugees and asylum seekers have simply become a way of the state depriving individuals of much of their own lives.

This year has not been kind to refugees and those seeking asylum. In 2020, Australia reduced its refugee intake numbers by thirty per cent. Australia’s response to the pandemic has excluded financial and medical support for refugees and asylum seekers. In the middle of the pandemic, hundreds were forced to leave community detention and find work and accommodation with only three weeks’ notice. 

Australia’s human rights violations have been systematically produced by mechanisms initially driven by an unfounded fear of and racism against, ‘boat people.’ The establishment of the turnback policy that prevents asylum seeker boats from reaching Australia; creation of a mandatory detention system; privatisation of detention centres and prisons; granting of predominantly only temporary visas for refugees; imprisonment of refugees who cannot be deported; and possible complicity in the drowning of refugees are all inhumane methods of Australia’s purposeful violation of human rights.

Although Australia sings in its national anthem, “for those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share,” it is far from fulfilling its human rights obligations. By grounding itself in the spirit of the UDHR, Australia must uphold the rights of refugees, rather than engage in narratives of exclusion and punitive practices that only destroy the lives of those seeking refuge.

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