Is Australia's Refugee Policy Really Everything Turnbull Made it Out to Be?

For human rights groups who have been campaigning against the Australian immigration policy, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s words of self-praise are a little hard to digest.

Malcolm Turnbull. Credit: Reuters/Files

Malcolm Turnbull. Credit: Reuters/Files

Canberra: In a small reception room, a stack of bilingual flyers in Vietnamese and English urged enrolment in the voters’ rolls before the October 15 legislative assembly elections in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Another pamphlet talked about a programme funded by the local government for volunteers to help students with their homework to cope with the burden of an unfamiliar school curriculum.

The Canberra-based Migrant and Refugee Resettlement Services of the ACT (MARSS) are a typical example of Australia’s extensive network of organisations, working with the government and equipped with dedicated social workers, to integrate refugees and asylum seekers into Australian society.

While their resettlement programme is considered to be a global model, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull supported a more controversial template when he spoke on Wednesday, August 21, in New York at the leaders’ summit on refugees.

“Strong borders are not just about security. They are crucial to ensuring social harmony and public support for migration domestically…,” Turnbull said at the invitation-only summit convened by US President Barack Obama.

He asserted that “strong borders” enable Australia to provide support to refugees. “Australia is a prime example. Securing our borders has increased public confidence and enabled Australia to have one of the world’s most generous humanitarian regimes,” he added.

Turnbull told the summit that Australia would increase its annual intake by over 35% to 18,750 refugees, up from 13,750, with another $130 million for next three years to resettlement services.

Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had previously announced before that his country would increase refugee intake to 18,750 refugees in 2018-19, but had not indicated that this level would be maintained. Turnbull said in his speech this increase would be permanent.

He added that strong borders were necessary for Australia to commit to welcoming 12,000 additional Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten accused Turnbull of rehashing Abott’s figures. “Malcolm Turnbull has flown to New York to reannounce Tony Abbott’s policies,” Shorten said, as per an ABC report.

He accused Turnbull of not dealing with the “elephant in the room” – the continuing “indefinite” detention of refugees in offshore facilities.

Asylum-seekers look through a fence at the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea. Eoin Blackwell/AAP/via Reuters

Asylum-seekers look through a fence at the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea. Eoin Blackwell/AAP/via Reuters

Australia’s ‘boat’ policy

Turnbull did not explicitly mention what “strong borders” entailed in his speech on Wednesday, but hinted to the official policy in another speech at UN a day before. “And we are all too familiar with the tragedy of lives lost at sea,” he said.

This was a reference to Operation Sovereign Borders, Australia’s policy since 2013, instituted by Abbott, to turn back any refugees who enter Australian waters by boat.

On September 18, immigration minister Peter Dutton described temporary protection visas, boat turnbacks and offshore detention facilities as Australia’s “trifecta of success in securing our borders”.

According to latest official figures, 29 boats were turned back in the last three years. Most of them included asylum seekers and migrants from Vietnam and Sri Lanka. Last month, six Sri Lankans were turned back after their boat was intercepted near Cocos islands based on a ‘tip-off’ from Sri Lankan authorities.

However, those refugees who do arrive by water and can’t be turned back are then shipped to detention facilities in two Pacific island countries.

As of July 31, 2016, there are 1,244 people detained on Nauru and Manus island, which include 55 women and 49 children. Besides, there are 1,346 migrants detained on mainland Australia and another 242 on Christmas island.

Human rights groups unconvinced

For human rights groups who have been campaigning against the Australian immigration policy, Turnbull’s words of self-praise are a little hard to digest.

Refugee council of Australia’s Laura Stacey disputed Turnbull’s claim that securing borders were necessary to influence positive public opinion towards helping refugees.

She pointed out that a recent poll showed that 65% of Australians wanted the government to close offshore detention facilities and resettle people imprisoned in those camps. The poll, commissioned and released by the NGO Save the Children Australia, had found that two-thirds of Australians want the offshore facilities to be closed by 2016-end.

“As such, the idea that our government should try to sell the model to other countries is laughable. People seeking asylum, more so than anyone, crave stability and security. It has been proven time and time again that welcoming refugees is overwhelmingly beneficial for both the people seeking safety and the host communities,” she told The Wire.

The UN refugee agency has been a long-term critic of Australia’s offshore detention policy, describing it as “immensely harmful”.

Amnesty Australia’s Ming Yu Hah said Turnbull didn’t mention in the speech that “strong borders” meant “turning back anybody who came by boat” to Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

“It is actually shameful that this is the definition of border security, which means the systematic abuse of refugees,” Hah, Amnesty’s refugee rights campaigner, told The Wire.

She said that Amnesty was aware of cases where refugees who were turned back returned to danger in their homeland.

In August, The Guardian published 2,000 leaked reports which indicated large-scale child abuse in the Nauru detention facility.

Hah said that Amnesty had applied to visit Nauru six times in the last three years to inspect the detention facility, but were denied permission. “Because of the facilities, Nauru has banned NGOs and Facebook,” she said.

There is still no clarity on the length of time that boat refugees will be detained on the offshore facilities, though the Australian government has talked off closing down the Manus island detention centre after an adverse ruling by the Papua and New Guinea Supreme Court.

According to Save the Children and UNICEF Australia, Australia has spent A$ 9.6 billion ($7.25 billion) in last three years on the offshore facilities.

In a report released on September 13, the Australian national audit office found that the government was spending more than double the estimates, at A$ 573,111 ($432,971) per refugee. There was concern that the contracts were finalised for operating the offshore facilities without seeking “alternative quotes”. It found that the main contract by Broadspectrum had been “blown out” by over A$1 billion ($755.4 million), but was still accepted by the immigration department.

Protesters from the Refugee Action Coalition hold placards during a demonstration outside the offices of the Australian government department of immigration and border protection in Sydney, Australia, April 29, 2016. Credit: Reuters/David Gray

Protesters from the Refugee Action Coalition hold placards during a demonstration outside the offices of the Australian government department of immigration and border protection in Sydney, Australia, April 29, 2016. Credit: Reuters/David Gray

The continuing government support for offshore detention is largely due to fears fanned by politicians, according to aids groups.

“They are afraid of people who come in boats as the they think that they will be inundated,” said Hah. She pointed out that in the 1970s, Australia had taken in thousands of Vietnamese boat people who had arrived at its shore. “The current policy simply shows a lack of leadership”.

Stating that Australia’s asylum policy has reached an “impasse”, the Australian Human Rights Commission released a report this month, which explored alternative policies of expanding opportunities for safe entry to Australia and enhancing foreign policy strategies on migration in the Asia-Pacific.

At Obama’s summit, Turnbull agreed to take part in US-led initiative to resettle Central American refugees from Costa Rica. Currently, Costa Rica is holding 200 refugees from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala who were making their way to the US as part of a massive increase in migration to escape instability and violence. Australia’s participation in the programme has raised eyebrows back home, with demands from various quarters for more details.

While the department of immigration and border protection is in charge of allowing refugees into Australia, once they enter the country, the department of social services takes over and the story changes dramatically.

Providing a snapshot of the policies followed in other states and territories, a MARSS official explained how their ‘clients’ are met at the airport and taken straight to their temporary accommodation. “First thing often we do is basically feed them, as they are usually very hungry and tired when they land here,” she said.

There is orientation on property matters, medical appointments, provision for mobile phones in case of emergency and stocking the entrants with ‘culturally appropriate food’ for the first week of their arrival.

As per the MARSS 2015 annual report, 58% of the people who came were from Iraq, followed by 22% from Afghanistan and another 19% from Myanmar.

Nearly two-thirds of the entrants had arrived on refugee visa (subclass 200) – permission that requires the applicant to be outside Australia, not in their home country and subject to persecution in their home country. The next highest category of entrants – 23% – were on the in-country special humanitarian visa (subclass 200), where the applicant had not been able to leave their own country.

After the initial six months in the humanitarian settlement services, most of them exit to the settlement grants programme, which could stretch up to five years. It includes helping them find suitable accommodation, learn driving, getting children into schools, converting their educational qualifications for the local job market and equipping them with life skills to be assimilated in Australian society.

It is no surprise that one of the challenges for the settlement services is finding long term accommodation in an expensive real-estate market. “Our clients have the disadvantages of having a lack of rental history, low income and stereotypes, but we have been able to work with them to find suitable accommodation,” a MARSS official said.

A key programme to persuade landlords to rent to migrants and refugees was recently started. For a small decrease in rent, the settlement services are guaranteeing that the landlord will have continued, steady revenue stream. For example, an Iranian migrant, who now owns a three-bedroom property in Macgregor, a suburb of Canberra, had taken three male refugees as tenants.

The latest project for the settlement service organisation is to provide a registered training programme, which includes four different certificates in community services and aged care support.

Human rights organisations, who are highly critical of the Australian government’s immigration policies, agree that Australia’s resettlement programme is par excellence. That is one of the reasons why they have been saying that Australia has the capacity to increase its intake of Syrian refugees.

“Once people arrive in Australia, our settlement services are some of the best in the world. However, with around 65 million people displaced globally, Australia’s contribution is insufficient,” said Refugee Council of Australia’s Laura Stacey.

At the UN summit, the Australian prime minister did not commit to any increase in the intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees which was announced last year. “We have the capacity and moral duty to accept many, many more,” Stacey asserted.

Amnesty Australia had advocated for an intake of at least 30,000 Syrian refugees. “We are a very wealthy country with excellent resettlement services and multicultural society – the perfect model country to take in more refugees,” said Hah.

However, the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party has shown that increasing the intake of Syrian refugees may be a politically sensitive topic for the current government. In her maiden speech last week in the Australian Senate, Hanson, who had earlier talked of being ‘swamped’ by Asians, spoke about fears of Muslim migrants. This may be a reflection of a small but vocal portion of Australian society. The latest poll showed 49% of Australians support a ban on Muslim migration, mainly due to fears over terrorism and integration into Australian society.

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