Ebbing the Flow

BY KIMON STEPHANOPOLOUS

Every so often, a rickety, dilapidated boat sets sail for Australian docks from Indonesia. For many brave men, women, and children, the heaviest baggage is that dreadful uncertainty, the knowledge that when they arrive on the shores of one of the most prosperous countries of the modern world, they might be turned away.

In Australia’s history, asylum seekers have come from Nazi Germany, Vietnam, Indochina, and the Middle East. As a signatory to the United Nations’ Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Australia technically recognises the right to asylum. However, the massive influx of asylum seekers that enter the country has led to the drafting of a “solution” to what is in common political rhetoric “the asylum seeker problem.” Since June 2012, the Australian government effectively reinstated a particularly polarising policy to control the asylum seeker flow – detaining asylum-seekers offshore until they can be processed, and detaining indefinitely those who arrive without a valid visa.

On November 26th, 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Committee released two comprehensively damning reports on these policies. By the current method, asylum seekers are detained at one of two islands: either Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, or the Republic of Nauru, a Micronesian island nation once known as Pleasant Island. It is unsettling that this name bears such stark contrasts to the situations now unfolding on the island nation. The UNHCR found that the Refugee Processing Centres (RPCs) on these offshore locations “constitute arbitrary and mandatory detention under international law… do not provide safe and humane conditions of treatment in detention; and do not provide timely solutions for refugees.” Indeed, the Committee acknowledged “some positive developments,” which included “the accommodation of asylum-seekers in hard-walled buildings rather than tents.”

It wouldn’t be a stretch to call conditions that merit hard-walled housing as a positive development deplorable. But it would be unfair to blindly take the UNHCR’s side of the policy battle without first understanding the conditions from which these controversial policies arose.

WWIIIn the years after WWII, by which time the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had not been drafted, thousands of refugees came into Australia from Nazi Germany, and recognised it as a growing nexus of economy and cultural celebration. Thus, word spread, and by the early 1950s, 200,000 European refugees had settled in Australia. This naturally put a lot of stress on both the Australian economy and Australian society, which until then had been developed predominantly under the “White Australia” policies, implemented first with the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, enacted the very year Australia became a federation.

Much to the chagrin of White Australia purists, immigrant numbers did not decrease. Soon after, immigration from the Pacific Islands began. This was strongly opposed by most Australian politicians, who were not exactly eager to sign the then-being-distributed Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nevertheless, after heated debate, an Australian pen was put to the Declaration papers, and Australia was now considered an officially “open” country. More and more refugees sought help there, as more and more wars ripped apart more and more homes. And so the trend has continued, at least until recently when the “problem” became unbearable. Thus began the above-described detention policies. Beginning in the early 1990s, these policies mandated the offshore detention of asylum seekers arriving in the Australian Migration Zone until security and health checks are performed and the people are determined to be “legitimate refugees.”

This process is long, arduous and, for the refugees, fraught with inconsistency and frustration. What does it take to be a “legitimate refugee?” What about their presentation can shift the assessors’ disposition? Do they have any sort of control over where they end up?

Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are based heavily on the political nature of the asylum seeker situation. Liberal governments have traditionally favoured relaxed immigration policies, in an effort to go back to the more open Australia of old, an Australia dedicated to welcoming new citizens and giving everyone “a fair go.” More conservative governments have placed more and more emphasis on “stopping the boats,” at disastrous consequences to the refugees themselves.

The rhetoric surrounding asylum seekers in Australian politics is disconnected on the most basic level: the human one. There is no refugee boat to Australiaway for a poorly paid staff member of a Refugee Detention Centre to properly determine whether a refugee is of adequately legitimate status to enter Australia. The Papua New Guinea “Solution,” as it has been dubbed, is to some groups indicative of “the day Australia decided to turn its back on the world’s most vulnerable people, closed the door and threw away the key.”(Graeme McGregor, Amnesty International Australia)

Public opinion on Australia’s asylum seeker policies has ebbed and flowed with the tide that carries them to the country’s shores. Perhaps we are afraid that Australia may become swamped with immigrants it is unable to support. Perhaps we are afraid that Australia may lose its historical status as dominated by descendants of the British Empire. Whether our vision for the future of Australian Immigration be motivated by paranoia, racism, or genuine worry for the immigrants themselves, there is a true solution to the humanitarian problem we are exacerbating. It is only to be found by reflective collaboration, an eradication of bias upon which half-full policies designed to garner political rather than human support are founded, and a realisation that the policies put in place around any country’s borders affect people in accordance with their terms. Hard-walled housing may be an improvement for Manus Island detainees, but it will not be a real improvement until it comprises one part of a critical support system that Australia dedicates itself to erecting around the displaced persons that seek solace on our shores.

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Kimon Stephanopoulos is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at kimonsteph@gmail.com

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