In Australia, in recent years we have seen a groundswell in support for government policies that demonize and humiliate those who risk death to reach the country and build better lives for themselves and their families.
The current conservative government, led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, has implemented the most aggressive policy on so-called ‘illegal’ immigrants in Australia’s history that has been met with both wild approval and absolute disgust.
The real controversy about asylum seekers for Australia stems from those who attempt to reach the country by boat. This image of small, overcrowded boats filled with people of generally assumed to be of Middle Eastern origin has become a symbol of fear and hatred for many Australians, and thus the policy implemented by Mr Abbott’s government has been met with widespread support within the electorate.
The core of Mr Abbott’s controversial policy, known as ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, involves turning back boats of asylum seekers and indefinite imprisonment of ‘illegal arrivals’ in detention centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
The Australian Government has outsourced the detention and processing of asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and Nauru in exchange for humanitarian aid. If one of these asylum seekers is deemed to be a legitimate refugee, they will be resettled in either Papua New Guinea, Nauru or Cambodia, the latter came under a new agreement between the respective governments earlier this year.
The Government justifies and defends its brutal treatment of asylum seekers by insisting that the motivation behind it is to save the lives of asylum seekers by removing the incentive for them to get on board boats and attempt a sea crossing to Australia. “This is why the government has the absolute resolve we have had from day one under Operation Sovereign Borders”, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told The Guardian Australia, and “it’s why it will remain because we are not going to allow the deaths at sea to recommence”.
The Abbott Government’s heavy-handed tactics on asylum seekers has been the saving grace for an administration that has been otherwise horrendously unpopular.
The policy of ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ has been so popular and is now so deeply ingrained within the Australian psyche that the opposition centre-left Labor Party, led by Bill Shorten, has officially adopted the idea of turning back asylum seekers boats into their national policy platform for the upcoming federal election.
Mr Shorten has explained his surprising change of heart on the issue of asylum seeker treatment by stating, “Offshore processing and regional resettlement together with the Coalition’s policy of turn-backs is what actually stopped the boats”.
The obsession with ‘stopping the boats’ is a piece of rhetoric that has persisted throughout Australian politics for several years, as both former Labor prime minister’s Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard had used the term, whilst Tony Abbott ran his successful 2013 election campaign with the slogan ‘stop the boats’ at the very core of his message.
Australia has faced growing international condemnation from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees who stated that Australia’s action of turning back asylum seeker boats are in violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention and it has set a “negative precedent” for other Western countries that are having issues with an influx of refugees from war-torn regions.
The UNHCR also released a statement warning that “This (Operation Sovereign Borders) may have serious consequences for the international system of protection that relies on the sharing, not shifting of responsibilities.”
Australia’s rejection of asylum seekers has certainly begun to damage the country’s otherwise positive reputation, but one must never forget the human cost of this policy. Although these asylum seekers are no longer dying en route to Australia, it seems likely that through Operation Sovereign Borders, Australia is simply shifting such tragedies to another location in order to avoid taking responsibility doing its fair share to assist those less fortunate.