Not just a policy issue: Australia's asylum seeker problem

Demonstrators during the refugee and asylum seeker rights rally in Melbourne in July 2013. A website aims to relay the message that the issue of asylum seekers is not just a diplomatic problem, but also about human rights and compassion. Photo by: Takver / CC BY-SA

The way Australia deals with thousands of asylum seekers from poor and conflict-affected countries by offloading them for reprocessing in Pacific island nations is a thorny issue — especially after Prime Minister Tony Abbott confirmed he would not change the former Labor government’s policy to not accept the refugees.

That move — spearheaded by Abbott’s predecessor Kevin Rudd and popularly known as the PNG Solution — redirects asylum seekers to the island of Manus off the coast of Papua New Guinea for possible resettlement there. Human rights groups protested the decision from the start, but things started to go very wrong about a month ago, when a refugee died after an outbreak of violence at the immigration processing center.

It was precisely that death that turned the asylum seekers into a hot-button issue in Australia, where a heated discussion is ongoing about whether or not to continue the policy.

For policy analyst and communication specialist Ryan Sheales, this is not just a diplomatic problem, it’s an issue of human rights and compassion — and relaying that message to Australians and refugees is precisely what he hopes to accomplish with his new website

“The asylum seeker debate in Australia is very polarizing. People either seem to be on one extreme or the other, and the actual asylum seekers in the middle are often forgotten,” Sheales told Devex. “I wanted to bring the focus back on the asylum seekers themselves, and the need for us to treat them with compassion and basic human decency.”

The website features over a thousand photos and messages of Australians across the country with messages apologizing to asylum seekers who have been inhumanely treated and continue to struggle for proper settlement rights. Here are a few:

“I am sorry that my government has forgotten what it means to show compassion.”

“Resettlement in Australia saved my life — literally. I was lucky enough to have the rare opportunity to apply and come to Australia on a plane. As a new Australian, I am ashamed of how our government treats asylum seekers and the laws they break to do it.”

“Fifteen years ago, I came in on a plane — and was welcomed with open arms. I am so sorry you haven’t been given the same welcome.”

Complex issue

In 2012, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees estimated a total of almost one million people tagged as asylum seekers worldwide — but despite the huge figure, only about 8,000 tried to seek asylum in Australia in 2009, significantly lower than the average annual figure of the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada of about 35,000.

This, according to Sheales, underlines Canberra’s lapses (or otherwise) in committing more strongly on refugee issues — something UNHCR is concerned about, saying that the recently adopted refugee policy has some compatibility issues with the country’s international humanitarian obligations.

“The world is watching how Australia deals with the issue,” Sheales noted. “The government always has to balance the view of the international community with its obligations under the law, the expectations of Australian voters and many other considerations. It’s an enviable task.”

Sheales added that this is a “tough policy area requiring complex solution” and that “whatever policy measures [the government] decides to implement, we should implement [them] with a focus on compassion and human decency.”

Despite the popularity of the website, an earlier survey revealed that 59 percent of Australians think those asylum seekers arriving by boat on national territories are not genuine refugees, while 48 percent approve of the government’s present treatment of asylum seekers. A resounding 60 percent, meanwhile, would agree to increase the severity of the treatment of the refugees.

This is something Sheales recognized despite the glaring difference of the reaction seen on his website.

“There are good and bad ways to implement all policies. But Australia could still implement those policy measures humanly, with a focus on compassion and care for the individual. Society is full of examples where authorities are required to be tough or firm, but not cruel.”

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.

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