On Friday, Australia turned its back on some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
The Australian and PNG Governments announced a new asylum seeker policy stating that, for at least the next 12 months, no asylum seeker arriving by boat to Australia will be processed or ever resettled in Australia.
Instead, asylum seekers will be processed in Papua New Guinea. If found to be a refugee, they can be resettled in PNG or wait for resettlement in a third country.
The policy has been put into effect immediately and there will be no exceptions for pregnant women, small children or people with severe health problems or disabilities.
The 20,000+ asylum seekers in Australia still waiting to be processed, if found to be refugees, will still have to wait four to five years to receive their permanent protection visas, under the “no advantage” rule.
What’s the problem?
We object to this new policy on legal and practical grounds.
This policy flouts key articles of the Refugee Convention, including Article 31, which forbids discrimination against asylum seekers due to how they arrive.
Although asylum seekers will be sent to PNG within weeks, no facilities have yet been built, no staff trained and no health or education provided in PNG to ensure that the rights of the asylum seekers are upheld.
This “cart before the horse” approach seriously risks abusing the rights of asylum seekers under numerous international human rights laws.
The UN Department of Development Programme’s Development Index measures national income per capita, availability of education and average life expectancy.
Under this index, Australia ranks 2nd in the Asia Pacific, whereas PNG ranks 156th.
PNG is not exempt from ensuring human rights standards for asylum seekers - but this is a country facing significant human rights problems, where 50% of women have been raped and homosexuality is still considered a crime.
The one asylum seeker processing facility in PNG – on Manus Island – has been widely criticised for failing to protect the rights, health and welfare of the 200 asylum seekers detained there.
Now the Government wants to send thousands upon thousands of desperate people to PNG.
This is why we have serious concerns about PNG’s ability to ensure the rights of thousands of asylum seekers and refugees.
Don’t we have to stop the boats?
Yes. Amnesty is appalled by the deaths at sea of desperate people seeking safety in Australia. We oppose the exploitation of asylum seekers and refugees by human traffickers.
However, punitive policies such as this, which aim to deter asylum seekers from boarding boats to Australia, have completely failed in their aim. There is no good reason to expect this policy will fare any better.
Until the Government addresses the “push” factors driving asylum seekers to board boats - the appalling conditions for and criminal punishment of asylum seekers in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia and the lengthy delays in accessing UNHCR processes and resettlement - they will continue to come.
Asylum seekers who don’t get on a boat don’t disappear in a puff of smoke.
This policy condemns them to suffer appalling conditions and punishments in other countries in the Asia Pacific.
Solving the problem
Australia will attend a meeting next month of leaders from the Asia Pacific region, with the aim of addressing the issues of people smuggling and asylum seekers.
Where we had hoped Australia would encourage other states to end their abuse of asylum seekers and refugees crossing their borders, this policy sees Australia tumble from the moral high ground.
We’re now in no position to demand other countries step up to their responsibilities.
5 ways you can take action for refugees
Want to do something about this policy? Here are five ways you can take action.