Facilities at the Manus Island Regional Processing Facility, used for the detention of asylum seekers that arrive by boat. Photo: Getty Images
There’s a bedtime story that Australians like to tell about themselves. ‘We’re a democratic country’, we coo, ‘compassionate, open and with a strong tradition of human rights’. To show how true this story is we compare ourselves with other countries. Unlike China, our government is open to public scrutiny. Unlike the middle-east, we embrace modern freedoms. Unlike the violence of certain African countries, we are a peaceful people. We’re relaxed, easy-going and hospitable to strangers.
It’s a fatuous, narcissistic story which fell to pieces last week when the atrocities of Manus Island made their way into our lounge-rooms. We were suitably outraged at 23-year old Reza Barati dying and many more being injured because of our failure to provide protection. It made us question what kind of a country we were.
But since 1992 when Paul Keating introduced mandatory detention we have remained relatively unconcerned by the routinized violence inflicted upon asylum seekers. When Habib Wehedy flung himself on to electrical wires on the day he was to be deported, or when Ahmad Al Akabi joined all the drawstrings of his shorts together and hanged himself in his room in Villawood, we did nothing. We have failed to exercise the most basic levels of empathy towards those who need it most. Under the inhumane and illogical policy of deterrence, we didn’t need to wait for asylum seekers to be killed by machetes, knives and stones; we created the conditions for them to kill themselves instead.
In a global perspective Australia is ungenerous, mean-spirited and cruel. Even China, a country hardly renowned for its human rights record, is chastising us for our treatment of asylum seekers. We congratulate ourselves for being a friendly country at the same time as we subject asylum seekers to indefinite detainment, deportation and abuse. We fret about being flooded by refugees and yet take a mere 1.47% of the world’s asylum seekers. We have an annual quota of 13,750 places for refugees, which is negligible when compared to countries around the world.
Rather than squinting at our own borders with ignorant, tight-lipped worry let’s go beyond them to see how some other countries, not usually associated with human rights, deal with refugees.
According to academic Jane McAdam, refugees are thought to make up 25% of Lebanon’s population. Yes, 25%. In 2012 there were 172,900 displaced Syrians who made their way into Lebanon, around 20,000 Iraqis and more than 10,000 Palestinians. Although there were some limitations placed on the rights of Palestinian refugees the law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration and repatriation. Unlike Australia, asylum seekers are not initially detained: they are given two months after arriving in the country to apply for refugee status and during this time 90% of Syrian refugees stay with host families who are not always friends or family. Refugee children can attend school and are given access to health care. Non-Palestinian refugees are granted the right to work and there have been some legislative efforts to extend this to Palestinians. It’s not perfect and Palestinians suffer discrimination. But it’s better than Australia.
Kenya is not a wealthy country and nor is it anywhere near as spacious as Australia. And yet in 2012 the UN estimated that Kenya was hosting 650,000 refugees, mostly from Somalia and Southern Sudan. In 2011 the Government announced an encampment policy for refugees which denies their freedom of movement. But it has granted permission for refugees to attend higher education institutions and receive specialised medical care outside the camps, which can be contrasted to the lack of medical care given to everyone, including pregnant women, at Manus Island. They also made exceptions to the encampment policy for vulnerable groups in need of protection. Kenya is not an example of best practice for refugees. But relative to Australia, Kenya looks humane.
Italy has not been particularly admirable when it comes to refugees. Like Australia, the Government has pursued a policy of turning back the boats, there have been uprisings at immigration and detention centres and they suffer discrimination in the labour market. And yet, with all its shortcomings, Italy is better than Australia. Where our Immigration Act is constantly being amended to deny asylum seekers rights (through policies with odd fascist names like The Pacific Solution) Italy’s constitution provides a degree of security. It guarantees refugees freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration and repatriation. Where Australia is tyrannically secretive about what goes on in refugee camps, Italy co-operates with the UNHCR and other humanitarian groups. The government provides protection against the return of refugees to countries where their lives would be threatened and it offers temporary protection to those who don’t make refugee status. Again, it’s not perfect. But it’s better than Australia.
Pakistan – that dark, frightful country filled with cold-hearted terrorists –provided protection to 1.66 million registered Afghan refugees in 2012. They have been doing this since 1979. Being weird and Muslim, they haven’t signed all of our lovely sparkling international treaties. The country is a party to neither the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees nor its 1967 Protocol. Unlike Australia, they generally respect the principle that repatriation must be voluntary and refugees have mostly free movement within Pakistan. Fewer than half of registered Afghan refugees live in villages and nearly 60% live in urban areas. They can also engage in foreign travel to any country except Israel. Pakistan is not wealthy and its population is already many times larger than Australia. Yet they do not bleat about being ‘flooded by refugees’ and nor do they put them in death camps on islands.
Without signing any of the treaties that grant refugees rights in international law Pakistan gives refugees rights as a matter of basic decency. And this - this respect for the dignity of human life and the right to live without fear - is surely an idea that friendly, democratic, law-abiding Australia could learn something about.
(Research for this article was conducted through the US Department of State Human Rights Reports)