Inside Story

Sending a message to the wrong people

Australia’s immensely expensive campaign against people smuggling demonised just one kind of unauthorised arrival

Antje Missbach 29 April 2020 2061 words

War footing: then prime minister Tony Abbott in Darwin in October 2013 launching the first of eight Cape-class vessels that would take a lead role in his government’s Operation Sovereign Borders. Peter Eve/AAP Image

Over the past twenty years Australia has grappled with two arch enemies: asylum seekers who come by boat and the people smugglers who facilitate their journeys. To minimise sympathy for these people, the Australian government has played down their need to escape persecution and danger by labelling them “illegal maritime arrivals” or “potential illegal immigrants” and describing their journeys as people smuggling operations.

Successive governments have introduced a range of deterrence measures, some at Australia’s borders and some much further away. Among them are the often-bizarre information campaigns launched in countries asylum seekers are fleeing from, including Iran and Sri Lanka, and in Indonesia and other transit countries. Some campaigns have targeted the fishermen who transport asylum seekers across the ocean, but most have sought to discourage asylum seekers from leaving their home country in the first place. In one recently revealed case, the Australian government distributed fake horoscopes to deter Sri Lankan asylum seekers. According to the entry for Cancer:

Family problems will occur. Luck is not in the cards for you. Do not try to travel illegally to Australia by boat, as you will be stopped and returned. You will lose everything your family owes to debt, and face family problems.

Regardless of whether these campaigns are effective, which is questionable, the number of boats arriving in Australia has decreased dramatically. In 2013, more than 300 vessels transported at least 20,000 people to Australia; a year later, the official number was just one boat with 160 passengers, and there have been no further arrivals since then.

Australian politicians have frequently recommended their formula to other countries, especially the Mediterranean states of the European Union, where thousands of asylum seekers and migrants have arrived by sea. By 2017, according to then immigration minister Peter Dutton, at least six European countries were asking Australia for advice in managing their so-called refugee crisis.

What lies behind this apparent success in stopping the boats? And could it really be replicated by other countries?

Australia’s approach rests on three pillars, all of which are supported by the country’s two main political parties. The first is the mandatory detention of certain asylum seekers under 1992 amendments to the Migration Reform Act. Even though immigration detention is expensive and undoubtedly harms detainees, any person arriving in Australia without a valid visa must be detained by law. Australia’s first detention centres were established in remote corners of the country, often in the outback, in order to evade public scrutiny, but from 2009 the government also made use of detention facilities on Christmas Island. Some 1550 kilometres from Australia’s remote northwest coast, that centre is even further from the scrutiny of independent non-government agencies.

The second pillar is Australia’s system of “offshore processing.” Since 2013, asylum seekers arriving by boat have been prevented from submitting their asylum applications to Australian authorities, and must have their claims processed in Nauru or Papua New Guinea. Under memorandums of understanding with those countries, Australia takes no responsibility for finding a long-term home for asylum seekers even if they are found to be in need of protection. Instead, they must rely on resettlement offers from other countries or on integration into Papua New Guinean society.

Some 4177 people have been sent to Nauru or Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) since 13 August 2012 to be confined there in cruel and degrading conditions. In April 2016, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled that the detention of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island was illegal. Instead of complying with this ruling, the Australian government resorted to coercive measures, eventually withdrawing all support services for the detention centre in October 2017 in an attempt to force the inhabitants to move to a planned new accommodation site nearer to Lorengau, the island’s main town. Contractors, under instructions from the Australian government, cut power, water, food and medical supplies to the original detention centre, leaving the refugees to fend for themselves by digging wells and making journeys to search for food at night. Those with urgent medical needs, including one person with a serious heart condition, had no access to healthcare services. After years of confinement and exposure to widespread violence, most of the remaining people suffer from anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Since February 2014, thirteen people are known to have died in offshore detention facilities or as a result of offshore processing more broadly, including seven known or suspected suicides. Australia refuses to accept responsibility for any of these deaths. Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati was killed in a riot on Manus Island in February 2014 and Hamid Khazaei died of sepsis in September 2014 after he contracted a leg infection in the Manus Island detention centre, for which he did not receive the required medical treatment. Many thousands of other incidents of violence and self-harm have never been reported in the media because of the secrecy that surrounds offshore processing arrangements.

As of late September 2019, 562 people remained in Nauru and in Papua New Guinea. Those found not to be genuine refugees had been repatriated, and 632 had departed for the United States under a refugee resettlement agreement negotiated with Barack Obama and implemented under his successor as president, Donald Trump.

Although conditions in those camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea are known to be appalling, the evidence suggests they are not the main reason for the decrease in the number of new asylum seekers arriving by boat. The most effective deterrent is the third pillar of Australia’s deterrence model — turnbacks of boats. During the 2013 federal election, the Coalition parties campaigned on their leader Tony Abbott’s “stop the boats” policy, which involved bringing several government agencies under the direct control of the Australian military. After winning the election in September 2013, Abbott initiated the military-led Operation Sovereign Borders, which intercepted at least thirty-six boats with 852 passengers and turned them back to Indonesia, Sri Lanka or Vietnam. Precise statistics are hard to obtain as the Australian government has resisted releasing information about “on-water” operations. On 6 August 2015, immigration minister Peter Dutton announced that twelve months had passed since the last successful people smuggling operation.

Many other asylum seeker journeys may have been deterred at the point of their departure in the countries of origin or of transit. According to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, since 2013 at least 2525 people have been stopped from boarding boats to Australia as a result of cooperation between Australian authorities and their counterparts in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and other neighbouring countries, which disrupted seventy-eight people smuggling operations.

UN agencies have criticised turnback and disruption operations on several occasions on the grounds that they may violate fundamental human rights bestowed under refugee and human rights law, as well as the law of the sea. One of the most embarrassing episodes came in June 2015 when media reports revealed that Australian officers had paid six Indonesian fishermen approximately US$30,000 to take asylum seekers back to Indonesia, thus themselves engaging in people smuggling by encouraging clandestine border crossing.

Estimating exactly how much Australian governments have spent on deterrence is no simple task, with many different government agencies having been involved over many years. What is clear, however, is that the hardline policies have been extremely costly. Figures provided to Senate estimates in early 2018 revealed that, in 2016–17 alone, the Australian government spent $4.06 billion, including $1.57 billion for onshore compliance and detention, $1.08 billion for the “offshore management” of “irregular maritime arrivals” and $1.06 billion on border enforcement. To detain a single person in offshore processing facilities in Nauru or Papua New Guinea was costing the Australian government $573,000 a year.

Australia also faces less tangible costs, including the negative impact of the deterrence policy on its relations with its neighbours and a decline in reputation globally. Pushing back boats to Indonesia without the consent of the Indonesian government not only damaged Australia’s relationship with Jakarta but also cemented Australia’s reputation as a regional bully. Paying Cambodia $30 million to accept seven of the refugees Australia refused to resettle in its own territory established Australia’s image as a neocolonial overlord diverting its responsibilities to a poor country with a weak justice system and inadequate human rights protection.

Australia’s reputation has suffered beyond the region, too. No other country has used its connections with small developing nations — in this case, Nauru and Cambodia — to offload its asylum seeker burden. On several occasions the United Nations has criticised Australia for its cruel and inhumane offshore detention practices and for the turnbacks that have put the lives of the passengers at risk. But the criticism has fallen on deaf ears in Canberra; in fact prime minister Tony Abbott responded in 2015 by saying that Australians were “sick of being lectured to by the United Nations.”

Besides the damage done to Australia’s international relations, the lack of transparency in the implementation of the hardline policies of successive governments comes at a significant cost to Australian democracy. Designed as military operations and executed beyond the borders of its own territory, Australia’s deterrence policies are shrouded in secrecy, shielding the government from any meaningful accountability. The number of intercepted boats, the limitations of fast-track assessments of asylum claims at sea, and the conditions in the detention centres remain largely concealed from the public.

More alarming, however, are the restraints on whistleblowers introduced in 2015 under the controversial Australian Border Force Act, which have prevented people from speaking out against injustices done to the asylum seekers, for fear of imprisonment or of losing their jobs. It wasn’t until October 2016 that the government amended the legislation to exempt doctors, nurses, psychologists and other health professionals from prison terms of up to two years if they spoke out about the conditions in immigration detention.

Much of the human cost of Australia’s deterrence model is carried by the asylum seekers immobilised in detention centres or caught in transit countries that haven’t ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and so offer no proper protection. With little or no assistance and no right to earn their living in those countries, asylum seekers and refugees who have been intercepted and returned to Indonesia linger in desperate conditions. Those barred from resettling in Australia, no matter how genuine their refugee claims, face homelessness and destitution in circumstances that give rise to self-harm and depression. They are left with no resolution to their recognised claim for protection.

Many researchers have pointed out that measures to counter people smuggling rarely succeed; instead, they divert the cross-border movements of asylum seekers and migrants, often making their journeys longer and riskier. From this point of view it is not surprising that the number of asylum seekers in Australia has actually increased recently. Instead of arriving by boat, however, asylum seekers are arriving by plane. Figures released by shadow immigration minister Kristina Keneally show that the number of people landing at Australian airports and applying for asylum rocketed to nearly 28,000 in 2017–18 — up from 18,290 in 2016–17 and 9554 in 2015–16.

While the asylum seekers who came to Australia by boat were usually from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Vietnam, most of the newcomers hail from China and Malaysia. Unlike earlier asylum seekers, they are able to apply for tourist or student visas and board flights to Australia. They also face much higher rejection rates than pre-2013 asylum seekers whose claims were processed in Australia.

Given the slow processing of asylum applications, newcomers run the risk of exploitation, slavery and sexual servitude. Although only one in six applicants are successful in their claims for asylum, many remain in Australia on bridging visas while they exhaust the appeals process, which can take years. During those years they work on farms, in restaurants and in the sex industry, often underpaid and overworked. And, of course, their vulnerability is even greater during the current pandemic.

The new people smugglers are no longer Indonesian fishermen who ferry asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia, but the middlemen who lure farmers and labourers from Malaysia and China, promise them work and apply for asylum on their behalf, thus exploiting Australia’s self-inflicted visa-processing backlog.

Having demonised the most visible yet least influential participants in people smuggling operations, Australian policymakers have overlooked both the inherent flexibility of the smuggling networks and the enormous costs of human suffering. The inhumane treatment of asylum seekers under Australia’s deterrence model has sent out a message, but clearly to the wrong people. •