As a 19 year old New Zealander, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that most of my peers haven’t heard about the humanitarian crisis developing on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Australian immigration policy is probably not at the forefront of our collective consciousness. However, I believe that this rapidly unfolding situation is important in the context of globalisation and is therefore important for everyone to understand. In this article I will attempt to explain how the situation has reached crisis point and the opposing arguments surrounding it.
First of all, the Australian government would have you believe that what’s happening is not a humanitarian crisis at all. Under Australia’s immigration policy, any asylum seeker who arrives by boat will not be accepted for resettlement in Australia. Instead, they are detained either in the Pacific state of Nauru, Christmas Island or Manus Island where their asylum applications are processed.
However, on the 31st of October this year the detention centre on Manus Island was closed after the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled that it was unconstitutional to restrict the movement of asylum seekers who have committed no crime. This led to a disagreement between Papua New Guinea and Australia over who is responsible for the over 700 asylum seekers on Manus Island. Eventually, it was decided that the detainees would be moved to new facilities in the city of Lorengau, Manus Island.
This decision was not without its critics. According to Nat Jit Lam, the regional representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the new facilities were still under construction and completely inappropriate to house the detainees. Furthermore, Nick McKim, an Australian senator from the Green party, reported that the new centre still lacks 150 beds.
Perhaps more worryingly for the detainees is the threat of violence from local Manusians. Although the offshore detention centres have been plagued by allegations of mistreatment and even sexual abuse throughout their history, releasing the detainees from the confines of the centre is arguably even more dangerous. A recent Human Rights Watch report documented several incidents of detainees being assaulted or robbed and included one incident where disgruntled Papua New Guinean soldiers fired rifles inside the detention centre.
As a consequence, the detainees were terrified of leaving the centre. Even after its closure on the 31st of October, 600 men refused to leave. They staged daily peaceful protests for weeks. However, in an effort to coerce the men to leave, the Australian government turned off the power and water. All staff left the centre after it closed, leaving the detainees without any medical care. The detainees resorted to digging wells for water but this situation has left them vulnerable to outbreaks of dysentery and cholera. Eventually they were forcibly removed by Papua New Guinean police. Behrouz Boochani, a journalist and detainee on Manus Island, alleged that some of the men were beaten with iron bars.
Australia’s tough stance on immigration has been condemned by human rights advocates and praised by ultranationalist groups in Europe and the United States. So who’s right?
To understand the Australian government’s perspective on the matter we need to examine how Australia’s policy has developed as a result of its history. An article published in The Atlantic describes how Australia’s complicated relationship with the so-called “boat people” (asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat) began in 1976, when a group of young people washed up on the Australian coast after escaping the Vietnam War.
At the time, public sentiment was positive towards these asylum seekers and they were granted refugee status. However, during the 1980s and 1990s the number of boat people arriving in Australia increased dramatically, with about 170 mostly Cambodian asylum seekers arriving each year. This was when the Australian government began to tighten up on these types of migrants, first detaining them on the mainland and then processing their applications for refugee status in the courts.
By 2001, public sentiment towards the boat people had shifted. When thousands of people arrived from the war-torn Middle East, “three-quarters of Australians wanted them turned away.” This was when the “Pacific Solution” of detaining asylum seekers on either Manus Island, Nauru or Christmas Island was born. The official position behind this was to prevent people-smugglers from profiting from transporting people on the perilous sea journey to Australia. According to Newshub, over 1000 people died attempting to seek asylum in Australia by boat from 2007 to 2013.
Originally, the policy covered only people who reached the mainland to claim asylum. At the same time, the navy patrolled the coast to prevent people from reaching the mainland and confining them to the offshore detention centres. Under this policy, the number of boat people arriving in Australia dwindled.
In 2007, however, Kevin Rudd and the Labour Party came into power. They closed the controversial offshore detention centres but immediately the number of people claiming asylum in Australia increased dramatically. As that number increased, so did the number of people drowning on their way to Australia. The Liberal Party opposition blamed these deaths on Labour’s policy change and claimed they were supporting the black market in people-smuggling.
When Julia Gillard took over as Prime Minister, she reinstated the “Pacific Solution.” The policy continues to this day but with one key change – now even if asylum seekers reach mainland Australia, they can legally be sent to an offshore detention centre where their claim for refugee status will be processed. However, even if it is determined that a person is a legitimate refugee, Australia will not accept them. Instead they can settle in either Cambodia, Papua New Guinea or Nauru. Australia has paid these countries millions of dollars to support them with the intake of refugees.
Although Australia’s policy may seem barbaric, you can see that it was introduced with good intentions. By introducing a blanket ban on all asylum seekers arriving by boat, Australia aims to discourage human trafficking and lower the number of people who die trying to reach its shores.
Consequently, when New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently reiterated her predecessor John Key’s offer to accept 150 of the refugees from Manus Island, Australia refused. Senator Pauline Hanson explained that in the Australian government’s view, if they were to accept the offer it would send a message to the people-smugglers that if they attempt to reach Australia, the refugees will end up in New Zealand, which is essentially a legal backdoor to Australia. Moreover, senator Matt Canavan went as far as to accuse Ardern of pulling a PR stunt, pointing out the fact that Australia actually accepts more refugees per capita than New Zealand. New Zealand is also included in Operation Sovereign Borders, an Australian naval operation that blocks ships carrying asylum seekers from reaching Australia and New Zealand. After Ardern’s announcement, four boats carrying 164 asylum seekers tried to reach New Zealand waters, but were turned back by the Australian military.
It is possible that this narrative from the Australian government is simply a justification for their consistent human rights violations. Alternatively, it could be that what started out as good intentions has gone too far and Australia’s stubborn refusal to change their policy is coming at a serious human cost.
Either way, the “Pacific Solution” has had its share of critics from the very start. Refugee advocate groups claim that conditions in the offshore detention centres are intentionally deplorable in an effort by the government to encourage the detainees to leave voluntarily. In my opinion, this practice, if indeed it does take place, is an example of constructive refoulement. Essentially, it is illegal under international law to coerce asylum seekers to return to the countries they fled.
Additionally, Australia further confused the rest of the world by not allowing a group of doctors to visit Manus Island and treat the detainees. This action certainly muddied the waters surrounding the Australian government’s intentions concerning these men.
Furthermore, while the Australian government seems to be focussing more on the “greater good” and reducing the number of people drowning while trying to reach its shores, there is an undeniable human face to this controversy. In a recent interview on The AM Show, Golriz Gharaman, New Zealand’s first former-refugee MP, called Australia’s actions “criminal.” She emphasised that the men in question are not simply immigrants, they are refugees. While the world is arguing with Australia about its immigration policy, these are real people who escaped persecution only to find themselves facing more suffering. Jacinda Ardern seemed to echo this sentiment when she stated “I acknowledge that, while New Zealand has not had to contend with these issues on our shores, it’s hard to ignore the human face of this situation and nor should it be ignored.”
On the other side of the argument, Australia will point to the fact that not all of the men detained on Manus Island were granted refugee status. However, the process under which Papua New Guinea refused the men refugee status is questionable, as their medical records show evidence of past torture. Furthermore, while the detainees claim they have committed no crime and were simply exercising their human right to seek asylum, Australia argues that they attempted to enter its borders illegally.
At the end of the day, this is a complex issue of which my brief explanation only scratches the surface. I believe however, that this controversy is representative of one of the biggest issues facing the world today: the question of globalisation. With the aid of technology the world has become more and more interconnected and as a natural consequence conflicting ideologies have met and clashed. However, recent landmark political decisions such as Brexit and the US presidential election have favoured more isolationist policies, reversing the tide of globalisation somewhat. Australia’s immigration policy is isolationist, and the people protesting the government’s actions are effectively protesting in favour of globalisation. This is why I think it’s so important that people my age are aware of global issues such as the Manus Island crisis.
In the future, it will be up to us to decide whether or not we continue down the path of globalisation. Therefore, regardless of which side you support, it’s important that you’re aware of what’s going on in the world around you. Only then can our generation have meaningful discussion and decide on what direction we want to take the world in the future.