Australia’s policy on resettlement has come under international scrutiny in recent months. The message is clear. Any asylum seeker who arrives is imprisoned in offshore detention centres. Under the new policy, refugees are resettled in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The Australian government has adopted hardline measures as a means of deterring asylum seekers from entering its shores. The government has called them “illegal maritime arrivals”. The government has also implemented a policy of tow-backs, or turning boats back.
The ‘boat people’ are mainly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iran who are escaping the misery and chaos in their home countries. Hundreds have perished at sea in making their way to Christmas Island in Australia. Despite the dangerous sea voyages, the influx of boats rose sharply to18, 000 in 2012 and 2013.
According to the UNHCR Asylum Trends 2013 report, Australia is the eight largest recipient of asylum seekers among first world countries. The government says that it has a moral duty to stop the boats since many have been hijacked by traffickers and criminal gangs.
While Australia has painted a rosy picture of its asylum policy, the real situation differs starkly. There are an estimated 677 asylum seekers held in one detention facility on Nauru. Human rights groups have voiced concerns on the unsanitary and unsafe conditions that is causing physical and mental health deterioration. The detention facilities in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea are far worse. Some have dubbed the facility as Australia’s Guantanamo Bay. Over a thousand asylum seekers are locked up on Manus Island, some stuck for two years. One man was beaten to death by prison guards and local residents during a riot.
Another country that has joined the asylum policy bandwagon is Cambodia. Cambodia has recently agreed to take in rejected refugees in return for A$40m in aid. Till date, four asylum seekers, three Iranians and one Rohingya, are the only ones who have agreed to resettle in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has provided support services such as language training, education, health and employment services to them. In return, the Australian government is providing monetary support to the IOM.
Australia has painted another unrealistic picture of the living conditions in Cambodia. Cambodia has been criticised for its own poor record on human rights, especially helping asylum seekers. Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch was quoted in an online article, “Cambodia clearly has no will or capacity to integrate refugees permanently into Cambodian society.”
“These four refugees are essentially human guinea pigs in an Australian experiment that ignores the fact that Cambodia has not integrated other refugees and has already sent Montagnards and Uighur asylum seekers back into harm’s way in Vietnam and China,” he further added. Many Cambodians have opposed the new plans to resettle asylum seekers, stating that Cambodia has its own challenges in providing basic services to its citizens.
Many are speaking out against the controversial policy, condemning it as racially charged. Some think that Australia is damaging its own reputation. Australia has also been accused of abdicating international responsibility since it is a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention.
It is unlikely that the criticisms will stop Australia from pursuing its policy. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that he is “absolutely and constantly” focused on preventing the boats from entering Australia. He has urged his European counterparts to follow Australia’s footsteps in tackling the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.