Human rights activists say Australia continues to violate the rights of asylum seekers. That accusation comes as Australia observes the fifth anniversary of the re-introduction of a controversial policy of detaining migrants in remote camps in the South Pacific, which Canberra insists saves lives and boosts border security.
Australia set up migrant camps in the South Pacific in 2001 to deter asylum seekers arriving by boat after a Norwegian freighter, the MV Tampa, picked up more than 400 Afghans in waters north of Australia. The offshore centers were closed in 2008 by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, but reopened a few years later in response to a steady flow of migrants trying to reach Australia by sea.
On July 19, 2013, Prime Minister Rudd said asylum seekers who arrived by boat would have “no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees.” Soon afterward, Canberra signed agreements to again detain migrants on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and the tiny republic of Nauru.
The center in Papua New Guinea closed last October after a court there said it was illegal. Some former detainees have been resettled in the United States but hundreds of others, who remain in community accommodation on Manus Island, say they have been abandoned by Australia and have nowhere to go. They include migrants from Myanmar, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. Some say they have been beaten and robbed by locals, and have described their treatment as “tortuous.”
Elaine Pearson is the Australia director at Human Rights Watch, a global campaign organization.
“Misery and suffering is the legacy of Australia’s offshore detention policy,” she said. “Australia has gone from being a country that once welcomed immigrants to now a world leader in treating refugees with cruelty. Five years on, there are still about 1,600 people trapped in limbo on Manus and Nauru, and this is the real human cost of a policy that no country in Europe, or anywhere else, should emulate.”
Australia insists the policy has protected its borders and stopped asylum seekers from risking their lives at sea. Hundreds of asylum seekers are thought to have drowned in the past trying to reach Australia on unseaworthy boats from Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
Since September 2013, the Australian military has been deployed to turn back migrants boats. Officials say the mission “has successfully reduced the number of illegal maritime ventures to Australia and prevented loss of life at sea.”
Typically, Australia offers sanctuary to about 13,750 refugees a year under various international agreements. However, in some years the intake is increased because of special circumstances. In 2015, Canberra granted sanctuary to an additional 12,000 people fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq.