Australia has long struggled with its own institutional xenophobia. From its very beginnings with the infamous “White Australia” policy, the nation has been shaped by racist policies that almost exclusively limited immigration to those from the British Isles. Fears of a “yellow peril,” an Australia “over-run” by its neighbouts in the South-East Australia. Though that policy was loosened up after the second World War, anxieties around Australia’s continued place as a primarily white settler colony still proliferate in the continuing debates around its treatment of refugees.
Conditions in Australian refugee detention centres have long been a source of international condemnation and protest within Australia, yet government policies have been far more extensive than that. Through much of the last decade, the conservative Liberal Howard government ran a controversial “Pacific Solution” for refugee treatment, intercepting asylum seekers en route from Indonesia and holding them away from the mainland in detention centres on Christmas Island, Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Though this ended in 2007, recently the centre-left Gillard Labor government has sought to give the morally bankrupt Howard-era policies a spin of their own, introducing a plan to send 800 refugees to Malaysia in exchange for 4000 refugees from Malaysia. here In May this year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay warned Australia of the plan’s potential illegality, saying:
If Australia is serious about this policy of sending 800 people out to Malaysia, then I think it violates refugee law. They cannot send individuals to a country that has not ratified the torture convention, the convention on refugees. So there are no protections for individuals in Malaysia. And Australia, of all people, that upholds (international standards), should not collaborate with these kinds of schemes.
This week, Australia’s High Court ruled six to one that a mooted plan to send asylum seekers to Malaysia for processing was illegal because Malaysia is not signatory to either the UN Refugee Convention, or the UN Convention against Torture. Not meeting those minimum human rights standards, the humane treatment of refugees inside Malaysia could not be guaranteed. They further ruled that an unaccompanied asylum seeker under 18 years of age cannot be
not lawfully be taken from Australia without the Minister of Immigration’s written consent.
The move is a victory for human rights advocates in Australia, though a greater problem remains. Australian QC (Queen’s Council) lawyer Julian Burnside recently pointed out on the ABCthe “weird economics” of a refugee trade that not only ended was going to result in more refugees in Australia, but cost the Australian 200 million dollars. He argues that the disparity between the treatment of people arriving by boat (who are subjected to mandatory detention) and air (who are allowed bridging visas) is untenable:
“Asylum seekers also arrive by air: typically they arrive on short-term visas such as business, tourist or student visas. Once in Australia, they apply for asylum. Once their initial visa expires, they are given a bridging visa pending assessment of their claim for asylum. This may take years, but they remain in the community while it happens. Most of these asylum claims fail on the merits (only about 20 per cent succeed). By contrast, about 80-90 per cent of boat arrivals ultimately succeed in their claim for asylum, but they are detained during the entire process. The arrival rate of asylum seekers who come by air is two or three times greater than the arrival rate of boat people.”
Burnside is right that the current Australian system, Malaysian “solution” or not, is inhumane, but I suspect that is the point. There is no great harm done to the community by the bridging visas used by other asylum seekers, and no particular reason why asylum seekers arriving by boat present a risk to the community.
What refugees arriving by boat do is expose the porous nature of Australia’s borders, with its large stretches of isolated coast, and the government’s inability to truly control its borders. It is for that they are punished, and for unwittingly recalling the “yellow peril” fears of early Australians. Whether Labor or Liberal, left or right, and even if Julia Gillard is toppled from leadership as has been rumoured, the fears of the invading Other in Australia’s political classes are all remarkably similar.
Mandatory detention is simply a harmful, punitive policy. The White Australia policy died for good reason, but its ghost haunts us still.