Australia’s unlucky boat people

Kylie Field

Australia receives far fewer asylum seekers each year than many European and African countries. Yet its bleak offshore asylum processing centres, intended as a deterrent, fall below standards required by international law

The phrase ‘the lucky country’ has been used as a nickname to describe Australia since the 1960s. It used to be used to describe the weather, the lifestyle and the good fortune of the wide brown land. But, ironically, it was penned as a form of criticism against Australian society – its ‘cultural cringe’, its convict past and its White Australia Policy. Donald Horne, the Australian author who coined the phrase, argued that he was in fact talking about a country that wasn’t too clever: Australia, he believed, was simply lucky. 

Fifty years on, the term ‘the lucky country’ is part of the Australian psyche. It is used widely by politicians, the media and in general conversation. Australians believe wholeheartedly that their geographical isolation from the rest of the world makes them lucky. Civil wars and political unrest are often greeted with a ‘glad it’s not in my backyard’ sigh of relief – a conceited arrogance that masks a darker sentiment. 

But the irony is that for those that seek asylum in Australia from such conflicts, ‘the lucky country’ is not quite so lucky. The current situation for those arriving by boat is to be placed in detention at offshore processing centres on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, and Nauru. Conditions are very poor and recent violence at a camp on Manus Island resulted in the death of a young Iranian refugee. Despite this, in a recent poll conducted by New Zealand-based UMR Research, 60 per cent of Australians polled want those arriving by boat seeking asylum to be treated even more harshly. 

But what does this say about the lucky country? According to Professor Gillian Trigg, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Australians have been demanding that the government adopts the most stringent policies imaginable to stem the tide of refugees coming to Australia. 

“There has been no national outrage. We don’t have a legal or national culture that makes reference to human rights concerns that other comparable legal systems do. We, along with others, have pointed out that Australia receives a tiny percentage of asylum seekers globally. We accept 2.2 per cent of the world’s asylum seekers and yet we have a very rigorous system. We do not receive anything like the numbers Europe and Africa do. There is a level of hysteria in Australia and a deeply conservative response to asylum seekers arriving by boat. 

“Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers is in full breach of international law and the United Nations Refugee Convention, which Australia is a signatory to,” she adds. “The convention does encapsulate contemporary law on the rights of refugees and the obligation of government. The key aspect – and the one we have to keep returning to – is that people who are claiming asylum are entitled, under customary law, to have their claims assessed and all governments accept that. Once they are assessed as refugees then the convention kicks in and that provides various obligations in terms of their right to freedom of movement. The key question for Australia is the pushing back of those claiming protection, which is not envisaged by the refugee convention. When they come to Australia, we have an obligation as a state to assess whether their claim to protection is valid.” 

Trigg adds that, unlike most other countries with comparable legal systems, Australia is detaining those claiming asylum for months or even years. “Recent statistics indicate people are being held for longer before ultimately being released into the community. The average is six to 12 months. The UNHCR has been clear – and it is backed by the European Court of Human Rights – that anything more than a few weeks to check identification and health screening is in danger of becoming arbitrary detention contrary to the international covenant on political and civil rights.” 

Alongside the issue of Australia breaching international law, the Australian Human Rights Commission is gravely concerned for the 1,000 or so children currently being detained in closed immigration detention. It recently announced it was launching a National Inquiry into children in immigration detention. The purpose of this inquiry, the findings of which will be handed to the government, is to investigate the ways in which life in immigration detention affects the health, well-being and development of children. It has been ten years since an inquiry into these issues was first begun. 

“Conditions are poor to very bad in the detention centres,” says Trigg. “Mental health issues are strongly emerging. It’s horrible to see children in detention and extremely distressing. We hope the government will listen to our recommendations. No other country does this to children. What we are doing other countries don’t have the need to – it is an exceptional phenomenon that we hold children and their families in detention for so long.” 

For Dr Graham Thom, Amnesty International Australia’s refugee co-ordinator, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s enquiry into children in detention is key and the search for asylum a fundamental human right. “We have seen large numbers of children detained since 1992 when mandatory detention was introduced, but what we are seeing now is people being detained on Nauru and Manus Island,” he says. “Nauru is of interest to us because families and unaccompanied minors are being sent to a remote island where access is difficult and we are seeing how that detention is damaging adults and children – both physically and psychologically. 

“Amnesty International has been dismayed. Australia is in full breach of its international obligations. This has been backed up by the UNHCR and even the UN Commissioner, Navi Pillay, came out recently and criticised Australia for what it is doing. The sad reality is we have children fleeing violence all around the world but what is most distressing is that a first world country like Australia has the resources to do something positive but instead is putting in place truly awful systems that are only going to damage these children further,” he says. 

But as the United Nations and other human rights groups across the world criticise and question Australia’s motivations, and the Abbott government continues its ‘climate of terror’, the Australian Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International are deeply committed to fighting for the rights of those that seek protection in Australia. Both organisations stress that the lines of communication with the government must remain open at all times and access to detention centres more easily accessible. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the Australian Labor Party were both approached in relation to this article, but neither granted me an interview. 

Prime Minister Tony Abbott spoke about asylum seekers during an interview on Australian breakfast show Wake Up in January, saying: “The public wants the boats stopped and that’s really my determination – to stop the boats.” 

He added: “Let’s remember that everyone in these centres is there because he or she has come illegally to Australia by boat. They have done something that they must have known was wrong. We don’t apologise for the fact that they’re not five star or even three star hotels. Nevertheless, we are confident that we are well and truly discharging our humanitarian obligations. People are housed, they’re clothed, they’re fed, they’re given medical attention, they’re kept as safe as we can make it for them. We want them to go back to the country from which they came – that’s what we want.” 

Thom believes the treatment of asylum seekers by the Abbott government is embarrassing for Australia. 

“A country like this, at the forefront of refugee protection for the past 50 years, is now being criticised internationally for its policies. We really want to make it clear it’s not an example that should be followed as it’s putting the health and well-being of very vulnerable refugees at risk,” he said. 

Donald Horne’s now famous words were meant as a wake-up call to a country that cared little about its role on the global stage. But 50 years on, Australia still clings to the draconian belief that it is ‘the lucky country’. However, there is a growing resistance to the policies of the Abbott government from a small minority of Australians who want humility and compassion brought to the debate. They may be battling with the majority for a long time. 


‘Some asylum seekers made multiple suicide attempts’

Chaman Shah Nasiri fled Afghanistan after his family was persecuted by the Taliban. His father was imprisoned – where he was tortured and eventually killed – and his elder brother was missing. The family belonged to the Hazara minority, an ethnic group disliked by the Taliban. Relatives encouraged Nasiri to leave the country.

He first went to Pakistan, Singapore, then Indonesia in the early 2000s, none of which offer asylum to refugees. He eventually found his way onto a small fishing boat one night that was bound for Australia.

“We were at sea for two days, through storms and towering waves. Then finally a customs boat found us and took us to Christmas Island. I could now apply for asylum,” he told Amnesty International. “But there was no freedom and no safety. I was taken to Nauru.”

In the processing centre he had no access to a telephone, internet or postal services. There was not enough water to go round and few medical facilities.

“I didn’t know whether I would ever be released. Many other asylum seekers developed psychological problems. I remember some people making multiple suicide attempts. I don’t want anyone, any Australian, any non-Australian, to live the life I lived as an asylum seeker. I hope the government will consider this.”

But Nasiri’s story has a happy ending. He was granted asylum in 2004 and now lives in Brisbane where he works as a welder.

“Now I do what I can to raise awareness of the desperation and hope that is the life of an asylum seeker. I became an Australian citizen in 2010. I am very proud of this. I want my family to be proud.” 


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About the author:

Kylie Field is an Australian journalist based in Sydney and Cambridge, UK


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