Seven Years of Suffering for Australia’s Asylum Seekers, Refugees

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Asylum seekers and refugees hold placards during protest against their detention at Kangaroo Point Hotel in Brisbane, Australia, amid the Covid-19 crisis.

© 2020 Photo by Florent Rols / SOPA Images/Sipa USA

This Sunday marks the seventh anniversary of Australia’s disastrous decision to resume its policy of transferring asylum seekers offshore. Since July 2013, Australia has forcibly transferred more than 3,000 asylum seekers who traveled there by boat to camps on Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

This experiment in human suffering as a deterrent has not worked. Seven years on, more than 370 people still choose to endure horrific hardship in Papua New Guinea and Nauru rather than return to conflict and persecution in their home countries. They languish in limbo, separated from families, futures uncertain. The United States has taken more than 700 people in a resettlement arrangement with Australia, and over the years the Australian government reluctantly transferred more than 1,200 asylum seekers and refugees back to Australia for medical treatment. Some of those in Australia live in uncertainty in the community on temporary bridging visas, but more than 200 are detained in centers or hotels.

Australia’s Immigration Minister Alan Tudge recently said, “We’ll keep them in the hotels in detention until they exercise one of those options,” the “options” being to return to their home countries or to go back to Papua New Guinea or Nauru. He later added that: “They’ve had their medical treatment and now it is, under the legislation, right for them to return home.” But where is “home”?

Tudge’s comments show Australia’s continued detention of these people is punitive and cruel. But it’s unlawful too. Under international law, immigration detention is not a form of punishment, but rather an exceptional measure of last resort to carry out a legitimate aim. Migrants should be detained for the shortest time necessary, and only be lawfully deported if they have exhausted their remedies after full and fair asylum procedures.

This anniversary is a stark reminder that Australia has gone from being a country that once welcomed newcomers to a world leader in treating refugees with brazen cruelty. Seven years is time enough for Australians to see the harm of offshore processing and to call on the government to end it once and for all, and to finally let refugees settle in Australia and move on with their lives.