By Altay Atli*
As refugees fleeing violence in Syria continue on their hopeful journeys for a better life despite the host of risks and threats, it is not only Europe but the entire world that is debating how a solution can be brought to this spiraling problem. One of the countries in which serious thought is being given to the issue is Australia, which has recently announced that it will admit 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq in addition to the 13,750 refugees that are already taken in annually through the country’s asylum program. This new batch of refugees will be chosen from among those who are currently located and have submitted applications in countries neighboring Syria.
Australia is planning to increase its annual intake of refugees to 18,750 by 2018 and is already providing substantial amounts of aid to those countries that are hosting significant refugee populations. These are all positive developments, however, there is also another dimension to Australia’s refugee policy. Under strictly no circumstances does the Australian government accept refugees who are trying to reach the country illegally by sea. Those who set sail with the aim of reaching Australia’s shores are not settled in the country no matter what conditions they may be facing.
In accordance with Australia’s refugee policy, which has drawn stark criticism from the international community, refugee boats intercepted at sea are returned to their point of departure by the Australian Navy. Refugees rescued from sinking boats and/or those who somehow manage to reach Australian soil are barred from applying for asylum in the country. Instead, these individuals are sent to “processing centers,” i.e. detention centers belted with barbed wire, in third countries.
There are currently two of these centers, one in Papua New Guinea and the other on the small Pacific island of Nauru, where individuals’ applications are processed. While those whose applications are rejected are sent back to their countries of origin, others whose are accepted are settled, albeit not in Australia, but in those countries where the processing centers are located. Additionally, a recent practice initiated by the Tony Abbott government that came to power in 2013 sees refugees being settled in Cambodia within the framework of a bilateral agreement concluded with this country.
At the heart of the international community’s criticism directed at Australia’s handling of refugees lies the adverse conditions plaguing said processing centers. A recent report prepared by the United Nations’ (UN) Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez covering 68 countries stated that “the government of Australia, by failing to provide adequate detention conditions; end the practice of detention of children; and put a stop to the escalating violence and tension at the regional processing center, has violated the right of the asylum seekers including children to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
Conditions at the offshore processing centers are thoroughly documented by the international media, which frequently reports on loss of life and violent clashes between refugees and security personnel in these camps. Such revelations have facilitated the widespread acceptance of Mendez’s criticisms among the general public and have also increased pressure on the Australian government to improve the conditions in these camps.
At this point, it is important to refrain from making rash decisions and to pay heed to arguments made by the Australian government. There is, in fact, a strong rationale behind Canberra’s current policy on refugees. Australian politicians claim that accepting “boat people” (as these individuals are often referred to) to the country would only encourage others to take similar lethal risks to cross the ocean in makeshift rafts en route to Australia, and this is something both the Liberal-National coalition government and the Labor opposition agree on.
Policy makers frequently recall that so far 1,200 people have drowned to death while trying to reach Australia. Another major problem cited by this view’s proponents is that admitting boat people to the country would also serve the interests of human traffickers and illegal networks which make millions of dollars by organizing these treacherous boat journeys. In sum, what Australia has recently been trying to say is that it is going to admit more refugees through legal channels for the sake of not encouraging illegal enterprises, as the doors will still remain shut to those who employ other means of gaining entry to the country.
The conditions of the camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and the Australian government’s attempts to settle refugees in Cambodia are far from acceptable. However, there is also a moral dilemma at play here. Australia is a sovereign country that has the right to take measures against any form of activity that is not defined through its own laws. If the cross-ocean boat trips would result in the right to settle in Australia, this would surely save the lives of many individuals and families who were fortunate enough to survive the journey.
On the other hand, the Australian government claims that not everybody on the boats are genuine refugees, and this is also true. However, there is a different side to the story. Denying entry to those who truly are refugees conflicts with human conscience, and contradicts international law as well. According to the 1951 UN Refugees Convention, of which Australia is not only a signatory but also one of the parties that prepared the text, individuals who fulfill the definition of a refugee must be taken under protection regardless of their method of arrival to the destination country. While there are those who abuse and take advantage of this framework, there are also many more innocents suffering as a result of this sort of exploitation.
So what’s next? Australia’s practice of processing and settling refugees in third countries is unsustainable. But letting in all the boats, accepting every individual as a refugee and settling them inside Australia is not a solution either. It should be realized that the real problem is not actually Australia itself, but the fact that the international refugee regime, which was designed according to the conditions prevalent in the aftermath of the Second World War when it was established, does not cater to the needs of our times anymore. European governments’ inability to decide what to do with refugees, the shelving of Schengen principles and Australia’s desperate search for a solution in the tropics are all related to the inadequacy of the 1951 regime. What therefore needs to be done is for all stakeholders to come together under the auspices of the UN and rewrite the 1951 convention. A new international refugee regime that would differentiate genuine refugees from other migrants, prevent the entire burden from falling on the shoulders of destination countries and ensure cost sharing, stop people from being forced into lethal pelagic journeys, and prioritize a collective struggle against human trafficking is needed.
Australia can play a leading role in revising the international refugee regime. In fact, Australia is a responsible party in this sense, not only because it is a refugee receiving country, but also because it is one of the initiators of the 1951 regime. Moreover, responding to the current crisis with a systemic transformation rather than ad hoc efforts will enable Australia to use the resources it has allocated for refugees in a more efficient way. According to figures released by the Australian government, the cost of keeping one single refugee in an offshore center for 12 months is around 420 thousand Australian dollars, whereas it costs only 25 thousand to settle a refugee in Australia on a bridging visa.
The Australian national anthem beckons “For those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share.” If these words ring true, then who could be better suited than Australia to play a leading role in the reconsideration of the international refugee regime and the establishment of a new system?
*Dr. Altay Atlı is a non-resident research fellow at the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK). He is also a research scholar at Boğaziçi University Asian Studies Center and Shanghai University Center for Global Studies.
This article was first published in Analist monthly journal’s October issue in Turkish language.