Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 24
When it comes to refugee policy, Australia is a land of contradictions. On the one hand, its refugee resettlement program is the third-largest in the world, bested only by the United States
and Canada in total refugee intake according to a 2018 United Nations report. Even members of the Coalition, the conservative coalition currently in power, have boasted about the “generosity” of Australia’s humanitarian migration programs. At the same time, anti-immigration sentiments abound as the same party that lauded Australia’s giving spirit also recently ran on a platform pledging to freeze refugee quotas and cut overall migration.
Amid these contradictions, a particular dichotomy stands out from the rest: Australia’s disproportionate focus on asylum seekers arriving by boat as opposed to those arriving by plane. While a mere 810 asylees arrived by boat and a staggering 80,000 arrived by plane between 2013 and 2018, the so-called ‘boat people’ bear the brunt of discriminatory Australian border and refugee policy. In order to warrant the refugee-friendly reputation it claims to have and appease border management concerns, Australia should eliminate its harsh deterrence policies against maritime asylum seekers in the Pacific and instead specifically address its inundation of airport arrivals.
Maritime arrivals are explicitly targeted by the Australian government through a program called Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB). Established under the Coalition to secure Australia’s borders from human smuggling networks, OSB aims to turn away all ‘illegal’ boats without exception and processes those deemed potential refugees on offshore camps. As a result of this stringent policy, it has become nearly impossible for refugees to enter Australia by sea, violating the international principle of ‘non-refoulement’ or not sending refugees back when seeking asylum.
More than just a guideline, Australia is obligated to assist these maritime asylum seekers under non-refoulement. In being a party to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, its Protocol and other human rights treaties, Australia is egregiously disregarding international commitments with its zero-tolerance policy of boat arrivals. While breaking international law in the name of border security is already illogical given the relatively low arrival rates of maritime asylees — especially in comparison to airplane arrivals — the humanitarian concerns OSB creates is the main source of outcry. Hailing from countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, boat arrivals seek to escape persecution and human rights abuses. Yet, in being turned back by Australian officials, passengers are forced to trade one nightmare for another, as the countries they end up in are often no better than the ones they fled. Sri Lanka and Vietnam, for example, have been known to arrest, interrogate and even torture these asylum seekers. In prolonging their suffering through its dubious border control objectives in the Pacific, Australia’s proclaimed “generosity” towards refugees rings hollow.
Meanwhile, airplane arrivals are treated in a much different manner. Citizens primarily of China and Malaysia, these asylees enter Australia through tourist and student visas. Once safely inside, they apply for asylum knowing that Australian refugee policy affords them protection with a bridging visa. This temporary visa allows airplane arrivals to reside and often legally work in Australia while officials review their case. Yet, the process takes over two years to complete on average, a figure not including the additional years needed to process appeals in a backlogged court system. While Australia’s bureaucratic processes stall, asylum seekers can potentially earn money in a first-world country, an outcome incentivizing others to follow suit. In the end, this unaddressed influx of airplane arrivals counteracts Australia’s border control efforts as well as stated support for refugees.
That is, in focusing on the human smuggling networks in the Pacific under OSB, Australia’s approach ironically ignores the growing network sustained by airplane arrivals. As Labor’s home affairs spokesperson Kristina Keneally noted, human traffickers have simply “shifted their business model from boats to planes.” In being denied the Pacific, these criminals have found a more lucrative market in sponsoring the flights of asylum seekers, as the ability for airplane arrivals to stay and work for an extended period in Australia facilitates their efforts. Once inside Australia, asylum seekers are funneled into “illegal labour-hire companies” and “brothels” by human traffickers, according to Keneally. Not only then is Australia undermining its own border security efforts with current policy, but asylum seekers are also being pushed into dangerous situations — a stain on Australia's refugee-friendly reputation.
Australia’s prevailing border and refugee policy needs to go. Beyond failing to effectively address border management concerns, the current system leads to inhumane consequences for boat and plane arrivals alike. To begin reforming it, Australia must first and foremost start abiding by the principle of non-refoulement and other human rights treaties it subscribes to. Not only would this policy change fulfill international commitments, but it would also re-align Australia’s efforts on the border with its other refugee assistance programs. Moreover, eliminating boat turn-backs and closing detention centers would cut costs: UNICEF reported that Australia’s deterrence endeavors in the Pacific cost $6.5 billion between 2013 and 2016.
The funding originally destined for those activities could instead be utilized to address the more pressing concern posed by airplane arrivals. One of the main problems resulting from and contributing to the influx is bureaucratic overload: government organizations like the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) are overwhelmed by asylum applications. This newfound funding could thus be used to expand the AAT in order to streamline the refugee intake process, which in turn could prevent the smuggling of airplane arrivals. The faster application review times as well as greater scrutiny these funds allow for would make it harder for human traffickers to take advantage of the current system. Moreover, these funds could be used for increased cooperation with organizations like INTERPOL, allowing for stricter background checks at airports and the like with the input of a third-party.
Currently, Australia is a nation divided on policy. The government transgresses against international refugee conventions yet has an admirable refugee resettlement program; it patrols its coastlines in the name of border security yet has not paid similar attention to those arriving by air. However, by welcoming boat arrivals and taking a greater interest in airplane arrivals, Australia’s reputation for being a safe harbor for the world’s persecuted will become consistent across the board.