Silhouette hungry refugee children near the fence with barbed wire — Photo by Prazisss

Guest post by Eleni Krikeli, former IAPSS Secretary-General (June-July 2017) and Student Research Committees Coordinator (June 2016-May 2017).

Over the past 20 years Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers has been under the human rights spotlight.

Australia is the only country in the world with mandatory immigration detention since 1992. This measure was introduced by the Keating government in response to wave of Indochinese boat arrivals.  The former Prime Minister Paul Keating, the founding father of indefinite mandatory detention, stated the following in his interview in 2011: “and by the way, if you want to come here, we’re putting a fence around the place. It’s verboten to cross the border. It’s alright if you fly in on a tourist visa into our main airports and overstay or run off into the community. We won’t demonize you for that, but if you arrive in a leaky boat, we will.” Since the measure became mandatory all asylum seekers and refugees are transferred to detention centres in areas such as Nauru, Papua New Guinea and the Christmas Islands. The inhumane treatment of asylum seekers in detention centres has been criticized widely by governmental and non-governmental human rights bodies because it constitutes a violation of many human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1986) and the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951).

There is an ongoing debate in the broader Australian community about the current legal and political approaches regarding immigrants and especially those who are coming by boats. In 2016 a particular event brought again the above debate and sparked the public outcry. Specifically, 2000 leaked reports revealed a huge scale of abusement in Australian offshore detention. The reports stated the tremendous impact the offshore detention has on children. Particularly, 51,6% of the incidents involved children which vary from sexual harassment to other forms of physical and psychological assault. Some reports depicted disturbing examples of behavior by traumatized children. For example, in September 2014 a girl had sewed her lips together and when a guard saw her he laughed at her.

So, should the Australian government reconsider its immigration policies and seek for alternatives? Alternative solutions have been developed in Australia since 2001 with the introduction of the Residential Housing Project for women and children in Woomera. This project was the first significant alteration in Australia’s detention policies, which allowed women and children to be detained in a residential home. The concept was based on the Swedish model of asylum seekers’ group home. However, the case of Australia was different since the detainees were under guard who were responsible for the determination of their healthcare and welfare assistance without the freedom of movement.

Furthermore, legislative changes occurred in 2005 under Section 197A of the Migration Act 1958 which introduced the concept of ‘Residence Determination’ currently under the title ‘Community Detention’. In the ‘Residence Determination’ project, the Minister had the discretion to determine the location and design of the house and allowing the residents the freedom of movement. Since 2005 the project has been used for a variety of individuals, including those with health issues which have been supported by the Red Cross. Community Detention has positive outcomes in immigration detention policy because the detainees have ongoing assistance from the Red Cross caseworkers upon their release. Nevertheless, numerous concerns remain on the grounds that they are individuals who remain in detention for prolonged periods in association with medical implications.

To conclude, the displacement of thousands of people who are forced to flee away from their home countries permanently or temporarily becomes an issue in a daily basis. They are coming to Australia by boats seeking for an asylum and generally for a better and safer future but even then they become subjects to dehumanization, sexual assaults and other atrocities that occur in a daily basis, constituting them as human beings only with the right to live or die, and stripped from any political agency. The state enforces and justifies these policies in the name of protection and sovereignty. However, the Australian government had successfully launched pilot community-based projects in terms of cost, immigration and welfare which highlighted the benefits of these alternatives in an extensive context.  Therefore, the Australian experience can be unique by its context and it can be effective in meeting the interests of the government, immigrants and the broader community by managing the migration issue in a both cheaper and more humane manner.

Eleni Krikeli

Eleni Krikeli

Eleni is s pursuing her Bachelor of Arts and Diploma in Languages at The University of Melbourne and she is graduating in 2018. In 2015 she was a Lin Martin Melbourne Global Scholar to study abroad at Maastricht University. Her study abroad program focused on International Relations and Politics in the EU: Peace, Conflicts and Human In 2016 she was a Melbourne Global Languages Scholar as well as a Swiss Federation for Excellence Scholar to pursue her studies as an exchange student in Geneva, Switzerland. Her research areas focus on: Human Rights, Australian Foreign policy, European- Pacific relations, international criminal law, and global justice by related contemporary debates such as climate change, migration and human trafficking.