Human rights expert Caroline Fleay discusses the future of seeking asylum in Australia.
Refugee policies are a wedge issue in Australia – which is the only country with a policy of mandatory detention and offshore processing of asylum seekers who arrive without a visa.
In this episode, David explores the future of seeking asylum in Australia. He is joined by Associate Professor Caroline Fleay, from the Centre for Human Rights Education at Curtin University.
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You can read the full transcript for the episode here.
Intro: This is The Future Of, where experts share their vision of the future and how they work is helping shape it for the better.
David: I'm David Blaney and today we're discussing the future of seeking asylum in Australia.
Refugee and asylum policy has long been a wedge issue in Australian politics and a dinner table conversation. And it's curious that Australia is the only country in the world with a policy of mandatory detention and offshore processing for asylum seekers.
With me today is Associate Professor Caroline Fleay from Curtin University's Centre for Human Rights Education. Thank you very much for joining us, Caroline. Australia's attitudes and policies on asylum seekers have fluctuated a lot. Do you expect that, as with climate action, the younger generation will be keen to influence future policy?
Associate Professor Caroline Fleay: Well, that's a really good question. Let's be hopeful on that. But perhaps if we start by thinking about the history of this country, because the history of this country helps us to understand why we have the policies that we have.
One of those policies, as you mentioned, is mandatory detention, which means by law, our government can lock up on an indefinite basis – and that can be for months or years – someone who comes to this country without a valid visa. This is legislation that's particularly targeting people who are seeking asylum, people who have fled the insecurity, the danger of their own country, and who needing to find somewhere safe to live and have felt there was no other option than to get on a boat and try and get to Australia.
When they arrive here, under mandatory detention laws – which we've had since 1992 and had been expanded upon since that time – they can be locked up in a site of detention, which is essentially a prison, which includes prisons in other countries and offshore processing places on Nauru and Papua new Guinea's Manus Island, and you can be held there indefinitely. And that is by law; you can't get that reviewed by a judge in the way that the rest of us, if we ended up in prison, under the justice system. Here, that legislation allows for the Minister for Immigration to enable that to happen – unless the minister exercises his or her own discretion to allow you out before your refugee claim is finalised if you're in Australia.
David: And do they?
Associate Professor Caroline Fleay: Yes, they have. This started in particular under the Labor government, the Rudd/Gillard governments, They started to allow people out of detention because so many people were being held for very long periods. There were increasing numbers of people coming during the Rudd and Gillard governments times in office and they recognised, I think the damage, the harm that is created by locking people up on an indefinite basis. There is loads of research to back this up, as well as people's own accounts of being in that situation.
So the Rudd/Gillard governments realised that people needed to be allowed to be in the community, to wait for their refugee claims to be finalised. It's a lot cheaper for the country and it's obviously a lot better for someone's mental and physical health. So that has happened, but you can be re-detained if the minister feels that you're unfit in some way or you fail a character test and so on. So there's a lot of discretion in the minister.
David: The official line or justification from the government, and indeed the opposition, on this issue is that it acts as a deterrent. Does it? And perhaps more importantly, does this end justify the means?
Associate Professor Caroline Fleay: Well, I would say a big no, to your last question there, and also a ‘no’ to the deterrent one as well. There is no evidence to show that locking people up on its own is going to stop people getting on boats to try to come to Australia. I would argue, and I think there is some good commentators who argue the same thing, and researchers, I would argue that it is physically turning boats around, which the coalition governments have been doing for quite some years, it is physically turning around boats and forcing them back to Indonesia, forcing them back to Sri Lanka. That is what is stopping the boats.
To lock people up on an indefinite basis does not justify any means whatsoever; it's actually punishing a group of people who have come here – the majority of whom have already been found to be refugees – the majority of people on Nauru and Manus Island have been found to be refugees, which means they cannot return to their own countries, which means they were justified in leaving them in the first place. So locking people up, with all of the harms that creates for those people, after more than six years, seven years, that cannot be justified by trying to stopping boats, which is essentially a fairly small number of people in the scheme of the world's numbers of refugees.
David: Once people have had their claim approved and they have been determined to be refugees, what options do they have, if not to go to Australia?
Associate Professor Caroline Fleay: People on Nauru and Manus have been told that they will never be able to come to Australia. Because this government sees that this is important to deter people, which, as I said, doesn't make sense. So they've been told they'll never be able to resettle in this country. There are a number here who are incredibly unwell, under the 'Medivac' legislation, and also that the government has brought here outside of that legislation in recognition that they're not getting the health care they need on those islands. Because there are quite a few people on those islands who've been locked up, have already died through neglect, because they're not getting adequate mental health and physical health-care, and some have taken their own lives.
Others have been accepted by the US under the American–Australian deal that Obama and Turnbull negotiated a number of years ago. Several hundred people have been accepted from Manus and Nauru into the US, but it's certainly not the 1200 that were promised. So there's quite a way to go, and it's very unclear how many more the US will accept.
The offer from New Zealand to take 150 people has been knocked back by the Australian government because I considered that that will somehow encourage more boats to arrive, even though ...
David: Oddly enough. That seems a little odd that they've made this distinction between New Zealand and the US, in this respect.
Associate Professor Caroline Fleay: That's right. What we're highlighting here is, this has become very political. Decisions that are made about how to treat these human beings is based on political advantage primarily. And it's tapping into concerns from some in our communities who somehow fear or feel they have to fear the arrival of people by boat.
We have hundreds of thousands of people who have arrived to Australia by air. Some have been found to be refugees; that doesn't generate the same response. It is somehow the arrival of a small number of people by boat that is able to generate this, um, I don't know if it's fear, I don't know if it's prejudice; I'm not sure what it is. And it's also being perpetuated by senior ministers and others in governments – and in opposition – who have deliberately framed the arrival of people by boat as something that we shouldn't have, as something we should fear. And sometimes being conflated with terrorism, which certainly in 2001, leading up to that election, it was. And still we hear Minister Dutton and a number of others talk about people on Nauru and Manus as being people who are rapists as pedophiles, people we do not want here. Which is just appalling.
David: You mentioned Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. My understanding is that that particular detention centre was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court. Why is it still open?
Associate Professor Caroline Fleay: They've closed it, but they've forced people who are forced to remain on Manus, they forced them into another site, which is arguably another site of detention. They're still incredibly restricted in what they can do and where they can go. That was the sort of legal way around it.
We also have this argument that the government can make, is that it's up to Papua New Guinea; Papua New Guinea has accepted these people and have willingly detained them and housed them there, so the government here says, "Well, it's not our responsibility". But it is the responsibility of the Australian government, because the Australian government sent people there.
David: We often hear the fairly pejorative term, 'queue jumper' with respect to boat arrivals. Presumably that is referring to UNHCR refugee camps. Can these really be characterised as queues?
Associate Professor Caroline Fleay: No, that's a myth. Yeah, there is no queue. I mean, if someone is waiting in a refugee camp, and not everyone who is a refugee or an asylum seeker. Asylum seeker is usually the term for someone who is saying, "I'm a refugee, please consider my claim", and until their claim is considered they're called an asylum seeker. The majority of refugees and asylum seekers will not be resettled through the UN High Commission for Refugees program because so few countries have that program.
The countries who are hosting the vast majority of people who have had to flee their countries are those countries neighbouring where people have fled. For example, millions have fled Afghanistan over 20, 30 years, of war in their country, and the insecurity and the violence looks like it's going to increase. So people who have fled Afghanistan fled to neighbouring countries, primarily Iran and Pakistan. Now they host more than one to two million people each. And that's a huge amount of people to try to deal with in your country.
People who are living there who have fled Afghanistan, many are not living safely, many are living without what they need – to have some sort of decent life. So people then, if they can access often not that much money, will try through a people-smuggling route to try and go elsewhere, because they're desperate, and it's understandable. So countries like Pakistan, Iran, all the countries neighbouring Syria, who are hosting hundreds of thousands of people, they're the ones who really have serious issues to deal with because of the vast number.
Countries like Australia, the US, even countries in Western Europe – with all the people that they received and the images we saw of so many people arriving over there three, four years ago – even those countries, the numbers there are dwarfed by developing countries who are hosting most people.
David: What happens once a UNHCR has determined that an asylum seeker is in fact a refugee – they have fled their country for fear of their life or for fear of persecution, or because they are unable to uphold their rights as a human – what do they do from there?
Associate Professor Caroline Fleay: If someone's found to be a refugee under the UN Refugee Convention, it means you face a real fear of persecution on a number of grounds. That might be because you belong to a particular ethnic group, a particular religion and so on. If you're found to be a refugee under one of those particular grounds, then you may wait for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to try to find you a place in a safe country.
But as I said, there is so few countries that have those programs. Australia is one of them, but it's not a large program. The US used to be the biggest acceptor of people under that program, but that they've slashed the numbers they accept, under President Trump. So there's not many options. You could be waiting 20 years, you could be waiting for the rest of your life to be resettled. There are so few options and the vast minority, a tiny amount of people who are refugees will end up in one of those programs. So you wait where you can. You live in insecurity. That's essentially what is, often in dangerous circumstances. If you live in a refugee camp, they can be very dangerous
David: More broadly, how is Australia's relationship with human rights going? Is it on the rocks?
Associate Professor Caroline Fleay: I think it's long been on the rocks. We don't have a great history, when we think of particular groups in Australia and how they might have their rights considered. A lot of people in Australia live fairly comfortable lives. A lot of us do get our rights met, and we've got to think about which groups in Australia don't get their rights met in the same way.
Of course, one of the big things that we have to acknowledge and we have to talk about when we're thinking about how we treat the arrival of people from a refugee background, is how we treat people who are the first-nations peoples of this country. So, the first-nations peoples of this country, who were colonised and never ceded their land, that is a foundation on which we have often had an explicitly racist immigration policy.
When you think about the white Australia policy, which was only officially dismantled in the 1970s, but arguably you've got remnants of that in this colonised country. When we consider how it is that we treat people who have come more recently, people who have come here seeking asylum, people who may look different from us sometimes, people who we might think come from different cultural backgrounds and somehow that makes them different from us, I think then we have to recognise and look at ourselves and why we are having that response in this country. And to also appreciate why it is that still in this country First Nations peoples don't always get their rights met in the way that the dominant white population in Australia does.
David: What direction do you think we're heading in and how are things going to be looking in say five, 10, 20 years from now?
Associate Professor Caroline Fleay: That's a really big question. I don't know. We've had a long history now of treating people who have come here seeking asylum in this way, and it's primarily people who come by boat. This goes back decades to when the first small number of people arrived by boat, which was people fleeing the war in Vietnam.
Interestingly, the government at that time, which was the Fraser government, another Liberal government, the way they responded, the coalition government responded was to say, "We have a duty to accept those people. It's not going to be easy, but we need to organise, internationally, a resettlement program to get people here safely so they don't have to get on boats. That resulted in Australia accepting tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees. So that was a great model; it's a shame that model has not been followed to that extent since then.
What we have now is a situation where governments are feeling like they have to stop people coming by boat, but not, at the same time, enabling people who clearly are fleeing persecution to come here safely. When you look at the Department of Immigration's own statistics on numbers of people who have come here by boat ever, the vast majority have been found to be refugees. So we have had people coming here by boat and more recently had people coming here by boat who clearly cannot return home. They've been through things that are unimaginable to most of us and what they have to flee; things are not getting better in their own countries, by and large.
So, arguably we have a responsibility to accept people and to allow them to live here safely. Just as many other countries are grappling with that, we have to grapple with that too. It's a reality, it's not going to change any time soon with the violence and the conflict that's going on in a range of countries throughout the world. I think for five to 10 years, what would be great to see is a greater appreciation and a greater acceptance of why people are coming here.
Our complicity too, in that it is very difficult to come to Australia in a so-called lawful way if you are an asylum seeker. The Department of Immigration, if you want to come here by plane, you want to come here on another visa, they will vet your application. If they think you might claim asylum when you're here, you're very unlikely to get a visa to travel here. If you somehow get a visa to travel here that is not a lawful visa, the airline that you travel on will be fined. That will be penalised.
So you have a situation where for many people seeking asylum, to try to find safety there are so few options for them. Options that include a people smuggler are often going to be the only way that can do it, if they can get enough money together to pay someone to help them take that journey. I think to realise that and to start from a point in Australia where we think, "Well, how do we respond?". The first is to understand that reality, and that reality for people is not going to change anytime soon. It would be great to follow kinder models – a greater resettlement program through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
If Australia could accept a lot more people through that program, that would be something . We could resettle people who are currently stuck in Indonesia because they can't get on a boat to get here. They've got nowhere to go. They've got no support, they can't work, they're not able to access schools for their children and so on. Maybe we could get those people here. Maybe we could also have a community sponsorship program. Canada has a much better one than we have. It's much more affordable. The community can get involved and help sponsor people to come here as well. But primarily, to just accept the people who are in this country who are found to be refugees, need permanent protection visas. Because they're only getting temporary protection visas at the moment, which leaves them in a terrible state of uncertainty.
So that would be something to look ahead to. And I think there's such a role for education. There's such a role for seeking out reports that talk about this – and there are media reports that talk about this; to seek out people in the community who are in this situation and work together with them so that we can shift how we see those who come here and by boat, and accept and have a bit of soul searching about why we tolerate these policies in this country.
David: When you look at all of us, as a community, not just in Australia, do you think we're perhaps becoming a little ambivalent to human rights? Maybe we've taken them for granted, the ones that we have here, the ones left. Or is it going the other way – are we becoming more mindful of human rights and wanting to promote those more?
Associate Professor Caroline Fleay: I think there's an ambivalence in Australia about human rights as a concept, human rights as a language. Now, human rights to me at its heart is about how we think we should treat each other. How it is that we should live together. I think if we strip it right back to that and think of each other as fellow human beings, why should we treat some people in a way that's different to others? For example, people who are coming to Australia by air, we don't lock them up on an indefinite basis. We lock people up who come by boat.
Then we think about rights, think about how it is that we're treating each other in this country. The other thing about rights is that if you are lucky enough to be able to go through life primarily and get your basic needs met, access to somewhere to live. You've able to access education, you're able to get a job, you're able to live with your family – when you have those sorts of rights, I think you can easily take for granted that everyone has an experience like that. And not everyone does. So I think when rights as a language, as a concept, as an underpinning of how we might live together becomes really important when we think about people who are not having their basic rights met.
People who have come by boat who are allowed to stay here and are recognised as a refugee are only given a temporary protection visa. That means they cannot get their families here, their children here, their close family members here to join them. That is an incredibly difficult situation to live with.
If we learn about each other and we learn about the experiences of others in our community, that may be very different from our experiences, I think that's really instructive. I'll give you an example too. When we think about this again, we have to think about those of us who are descended of the colonisers of this country, we've got to think about our own privilege and our own experiences and how the fact that we can live possibly quite well is underpinned by the colour of our skin and where we were born.
I grew up in a country town in Western Australia. I grew up in York, and when I was a child, in the late '60s, there were curfew laws. So, people who were Aboriginal, people who were Noongar who lived in York, had to make sure they didn't go into the town after a certain time – after about 6:00 PM. Now this is people of my generation and my parents' generation. We had no idea this was going on. We lived in the same town, that was not our experience. So talk about apartheid. It was not our experience. That's just one example of how we couldn't even conceive that someone was not getting their rights respected, of even being able to walk through that town; and if they did, they would be locked up.
If you don't have that experience, it's very easy to assume that we don't need to talk about rights. But rights as a language can help to articulate for people who are not getting their basic needs, not getting the rights the rest of us enjoy. It helps to give people, I think, or to recognise that not only do people have literally a right to that, but we also have a duty to enable those rights as well.
David: Which brings us to the end of our discussion on 'The Future of Seeking Asylum'. Our thanks once again to Associate Professor Caroline Fleay from the Centre for Human Rights Education.
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Bye for now.