Just before l got on the plane to leave Australia last month, I heard the news that the Australian Parliament would not be voting on the Government’s proposed Migration Act amendments. The attempt to revive the Malaysia deal had failed and the Australian Government had been forced into doing the right thing for the human rights of refugees.
Though the end result has led to onshore processing in Australia, it is clear that the path to this result has been riddled by a major moral failure over the issue of asylum seekers and refugees. The issue is still being used as an opportunistic “political football”, putting the lives of some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, including children, at risk. Seeking asylum when faced with a well founded fear of persecution is not illegal – it is a right. Yet if you were to believe the political debate in Australia, you could be forgiven for thinking that the country was being illegally invaded.
With torture, persecution and conflict creating millions of refugees around the world, the number of asylum seekers that make it to Australia’s far-flung shores is tiny. Almost 48,000 people sought asylum in France last year, while in Australia the figure was just over eight thousand.
Due to the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, tens of thousands of asylum seekers have flooded into Europe – where there’s widespread bemusement at Australia’s shopping around for offshore ‘solutions’ for a small number of asylum seekers.
How can Australia hope to establish a regional framework to increase protections for refugees in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia if it sets such an appalling example and tries to outsource its responsibilities?
When it comes to onshore processing, asylum seekers in Australian detention centres may not be dying of diseases spread by rat urine as has happened in Malaysian centres, but the long waiting times are clearly taking their toll on asylum seekers’ mental health.
I saw first-hand asylum seekers at Villawood detention centre in Sydney who had been waiting more than two years for their claims to be processed and relied on sleeping pills to calm their anxiety.
It was gut-wrenching to see refugees who had fled persecution in their own countries locked up in Australia. As I walked around the complexes with electrified fences and barbed wire, there's no doubt it felt like a prison.
There are over 130 asylum seekers being held at Villawood. The vast majority of these people can and should be processed while living in the community. They told me of their anxiety and despair while waiting years for their claims to be processed. A mother broke down in tears as she described how her children kept asking her why they lived in a jail and always had guards supervising them. I believe Australians are compassionate and would like to see refugees treated better than this.
I found it sickening to see a family locked up with no idea why. It is a flagrant breach of human rights to leave refugees languishing in this legal limbo without even revealing the evidence for the negative assessment and giving them an opportunity to challenge it.
While on my fact finding mission in Australia, I was also profoundly affected by the country’s long history of mistreatment toward Aboriginal people.
An Amnesty International report, published just three months ago, shows how, starved of essential services, Aboriginal people living in traditional Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory will effectively be forced to abandon their homelands. In short, they are being illegally evicted.
Statistics tell a clear story: with proper services like healthcare, education, water and shelter, people can be healthier and live longer on homelands. Uprooted from their lands, they suffer.
Making choices is an absolute right. The government has repeatedly failed to listen to those who are most affected by the decisions which it takes. It needs to do so.
I have been to many places in bad shape in Africa, Asia and Latin America. But during my visit to one of the wealthiest countries in the world, I was devastated by what I saw in a remote community in the heart of central Australia. In the Utopia homelands, I was astounded to find families living in overcrowded, dilapidated homes, some little more than tin sheds, without basics such as running water, electricity or working toilets and washing machines. In essence, government is abandoning one third of the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal population, and leaving 500 communities to wither.
Over twenty years of research confirm Aboriginal people living on homelands are healthier and live longer. With basic services like health, education, water and housing, people can lead more fulfilling lives on homelands. Aboriginal people have a right to live on their traditional lands. Yet years of underinvestment by successive governments have forced these people to choose which of their rights they will forfeit: the right to live on their traditional lands or the right to basic and essential services like housing, health and education.
These moves are part of a chain of policy and legal changes that have undermined Indigenous rights. The Aboriginal peoples’ strong desire to sustain communities on their traditional lands must be supported by the federal and Northern Territory governments.
With the Northern Territory Emergency Response legislation expiring next June, Amnesty International is calling for the Government to commit to the future of traditional Aboriginal homelands, to ensure there is a dedicated plan and budget and to ensure the full and active participation in any policy decisions of those directly affected.
As I finished my fact finding mission with key ministerial meetings at Parliament House in Canberra, a world away from the ironically-named Utopia community, I hope that the Australian Government will lift its game on human rights. Sadly, I received no commitments that Australia will improve its human rights record on refugees and stop treating vulnerable people as political footballs.
Australia can be an important voice in this region – but it will of course need to improve its own act, if its voice is to be heard with the clarity that it deserves. On Indigenous rights and the rights of asylum seekers especially, it is sad to see that Australia is currently failing.
Salil Shetty is the Secretary General of Amnesty International.