Why it matters how Australia treats asylum seekers
Many people continue to assert that asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat should be rejected because they (allegedly) pass through other countries where they are supposedly safe. See some of the public comments made in response to this recent piece on the ABC website by Rachel Ball from the Human Rights Law Resource Centre for examples of people pushing this myth.
A range of recent reports show just how false this belief is, and just why it is so important for the Australian government to have high standards in the way asylum seekers are treated and assessed.
International pressure is continuing to be applied to the Thai government to explain reports that officials
towed about 1000 refugees into international waters and abandoned them with barely a day’s supply of rice and water.
Five hundred men are now missing feared drowned.
That was the first of two refugee pushback operations mounted by Thailand in the past month. On or about December 18, more than 400 men, mainly of Muslim Rohingya ethnicity, from Arakan state in Burma, were set adrift. Rescuers found 107; 300 jumped into a strong current on seeing a lighthouse in the distance but only a handful made it to shore.
A group of Rohingya men were amongst the last sent to Nauru by the previous Australian government. At the time, assertions were made that because they had managed to survive in Malaysia for some years, they were ‘safe’ there.
This recent statement from Amnesty International protests the announcement of the Thai government to return around 5,000 Lao Hmong people to Laos, even though they have not had access to “a full and fair asylum procedure”. It also details past forcible returns of asylum seekers, and the prolonged detention of prolonged even after they have been recognised as refugees by the UN High Commission for Refugees.
For those who think a few hundred asylum seekers a year poses an unacceptable burden for Australia, it is worth noting the acknowledgement by Amnesty of “Thailand’s role over the last several decades in providing temporary protection to hundreds of thousands of people who have fled persecution and conflict in Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos.” (my emphasis)
This piece from the Chin Refugee Committee speaks of “a scandalous trade in Burmese migrant labour involving Malaysian and Thai officials and international human traffickers.” Many of these people would be refugees.
This piece by Alice Nah at the Malaysian Insider goes into further detail
What happens at the border?
Deportees who have returned to Malaysia describe that they are brought from immigration detention depots to locations at the border under guard and in handcuffs in vehicles. When they disembark, they are forced to walk into areas guarded by human smugglers/traffickers. They have no way of escape. They are caught and kept under armed surveillance in confined, crowded and isolated locations, often deep in the jungle. Some women are raped repeatedly.
They are given handphones and instructed to contact family/friends to raise money for their release; they are beaten and threatened into submission. Some who have dared to question why prices are so high have been told that this covers the amount paid to immigration officials. …..
Those who are unable to pay are sold — men to work on fishing boats and plantations, and women to brothels or “private owners” who keep them in servitude for sex and/or forced labour. Those who have been forced to work on boats tell harrowing tales of having seen fellow workers shot and thrown overboard if they protest.
Thousands get deported every year to the Malaysia-Thai border. Of these, it is unclear how many are sold and how much money is paid to law enforcement officials. What is clear, judging from the multiple testimonies provided by numerous deportees, is that these transactions are a systematic practice.
The greatest tragedy of all, particularly for refugees who are afraid of persecution if they are sent home, is that purchasing their freedom under such risky circumstances is a way for them to negotiate their own safety. It gives them a way out of the dark nightmare that began when they were arrested — to be sent back to Myanmar is far worse. If they are lucky, they are able to go through the process of recapture and return having only lost money, although this puts them in debt, exacerbating existing poverty.
There are only two alternatives to getting “sold”, and these are restricted to the few refugees already registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at the time of their arrest. This first is to stay detained indefinitely in immigration detention depots awaiting possible resettlement, which takes months (if not years) and is not guaranteed to all. They often endure harsh conditions — overcrowding, poor food, lack of access to healthcare, as well as violence and abuse from fellow detainees and guards. When the breadwinner of the family is arrested, their wives and children are left in abject poverty.
The second is to be released into the care of the UNHCR, which is sometimes done on an ad hoc basis for particularly vulnerable refugees — pregnant women, babies, unaccompanied minors, and the severely ill. Even this latter option is not guaranteed and is subject to the vagaries of immigration officials who may or may not grant releases.
Hmong, Rohinya, Chin and Karen people are amongst those groups the Australian government is accepting in this year’s offshore refugee intake – a clear sign that large numbers of people from these ethinc groups are at risk and in serious need of resettlement.
If Australia is seen to once again be turning boats of asylum seekers back, detaining refugees for prolonged periods or refusing to allow the proper assessment of asylum claims, it will be sending a clear message to our near neighbours that it is also acceptable for them to mistreat the much larger numbers of asylum seekers in their countries.
The only way Australia can take a lead in our region in encouraging better practices from our neighbours is to lead by example.
UPDATE (29/1): The ABC website reports on an investigation set up the Thai government into the allegations regarding the deaths of Rohingya refugees – an investigation “led by the shadowy military unit at the heart of the scandal.” The report also notes that the UNHCR has so far been denied access to “a group of 126 Rohinya thought to be in military custody.”