Last Wednesday, the Australian Labor Party, with Coalition support, fast-tracked the passage of legislation through the Senate excising Australia’s entire migration zone from the mainland for all asylum seekers and irregular migrants arriving by boat. These irregular maritime arrivals will now be processed entirely offshore. The amendments to the Migration Act 1958 are likely to pass through the Lower House soon. Reinforcing the Government’s deterrence based ‘no advantage’ policy from August 2012 with the re-opening of offshore immigration detention facilities on Manus Island and Nauru, the Government continues to crack down on the arrival of asylum seekers by boat in the lead up to September’s federal election and in response to the number of asylum seeker boats arriving to the Australian mainland.
The Liberal Government under Prime Minister John Howard attempted to pass a similar law in 2006. He was unsuccessful at this time because of a lack of support from the Labor Party in Opposition. The Labor Party’s policy backflip has been justified based on evidence presented by the Houston Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers. The Panel, convened at the request of the Government following a number of drownings at sea from boats en route to Australia in June 2012, was tasked with presenting a series of recommendations on how best to prevent the arrival of asylum seekers by boat to Australia. One such recommendation, which has provided the catalyst for this most recent legislative development, states:
“…the Migration Act 1958 be amended so that arrival anywhere on Australia by irregular maritime means will not provide individuals with a different lawful status than those who arrive in an excised offshore place.”
Until Wednesday, any asylum seeker who arrived on the mainland by boat had the right to have their asylum application processed on Australian shores. Under the amendments to the Migration Act, all asylum seekers arriving by boat will have their applications processed at regional level from Manus Island or Nauru even if they manage to arrive to the Australian mainland or Christmas Island. Arguably illegal under international human rights and refugee law, Australia continues to lock up asylum seekers in remote island immigration detention centres for undetermined periods of time with limited access to due processing of their immigration status, legal assistance and the right to appeal any rejected asylum claims. Children are also detained.
Through the media, leading Australian human rights groups and the Greens Party are calling for open access to these immigration centres to encourage greater transparency in their operations. The Government has so far refused this call.
The Government’s deterrence based policy towards preventing the arrival of asylum seekers by boat has been characterised as a national disgrace by leading human rights groups, the Australian Greens party and other social commentators. Academic experts from the Border Crossing Observatory continue to argue that deterrence based policy does little to stop the boats from arriving in Australia and in fact increases risks to asylum seekers crossing borders. This new policy will not result in decreasing risks to life at sea or irregular maritime arrivals. Human rights based policy that protects and supports those who arrive in Australia following an often perilous journey at sea is the safest legal and ethical way forward which should reduce the number of deaths at sea en route to Australia.