Australian protesters carry placards in front of Parliament in Canberra demanding the closure of offshore detention camps for boat-people. Photo: AFP/Nathanial Howells
Australian protesters carry placards in front of Parliament in Canberra demanding the closure of offshore detention camps for boat-people. Photo: AFP/Nathanial Howells

In 2015, Australian doctors treating the traumatized children of asylum-seekers at a Melbourne hospital refused to return them to an offshore detention center, as they feared for their well-being in the appalling conditions.

Bizarrely, the doctors were accused by local politicians of putting the lives of boatpeople at risk because it was claimed that allowing children sanctuary would encourage others to make the perilous sea crossing to Australia.

Three years on, the government is again saying it won’t relocate children facing “catastrophic” medical issues from offshore detention centers to Australia. It will also stop giving welfare support to 30,000 already allowed to live in Australia under earlier more lenient rules while their cases were heard: hundreds say they will be left destitute.

There is a boatload of evidence that asylum-seekers now rarely try to reach Australia by sea, yet politicians are scared of showing any compassion. The main reason: they don’t want to appear weak on border security ahead of the general election scheduled to be called within the next six to eight months.

“This was telling evidence of how far by now officials in Canberra have lost touch with reality,” social monitor Robert Manne said of the 2015 incident. “Officials now believe that one act of human decency will lead to an armada of asylum-seeker boats setting out for Australia.”

Such is the byzantine nature of Australia’s asylum-seeker policies, widely considered among the toughest in the world for its uncompromising approach to residency.

Asylum-seekers behind a fence at the Manus Island detention center in Papua New Guinea. Photo: AFP/AAP Image/Eoin Blackwell

It wasn’t always that way. In the late 1970s, Australia took 70,000 Indochinese refugees from camps in Southeast Asia for resettlement, and accepted others who made their own way from Cambodia after escaping political unrest.

More Vietnamese arrived in the 1980s when Hanoi threw out its Chinese population during worsening ties with Beijing, and then thousands of Sri Lankans who were caught up in their country’s civil war. Since the 1990s, arrivals also have come from Middle East nations like Syria and Iran.

About 13,000 people were already being accepted each year through a refugees program, and the government decreed in 1992 that this would henceforth be the only avenue for those seeking asylum. Anyone arriving by sea now faces mandatory detention in Australia or at offshore locations like Christmas Island and the island of Nauru.

The government no longer releases figures on asylum-seekers, but there are believed to be about 100 children in detention on Nauru who have become pawns in a vile contest between politicians to out-do each other with competing border security measures that have effectively become redundant because few boats are now arriving.

The ruling Liberal-Nationals coalition government, which first introduced the policy of indefinite mandatory detention, milked the issue on nationalistic grounds for five poll victories over 2001-2017. Labor, the main opposition party, lost votes when it was portrayed as soft on border security and now presents much the same heavy-handed policies.

Opinion polls have shown consistently strong support for a tough response to asylum-seekers, though the public is often woefully ignorant of what this means: 60% of respondents in one poll had no idea children were detained.

Mandatory detention on its own failed to stop the boats from coming – 51,637 arrived from 2009-2013 – but the next phase of sending them all back has worked. Since 2013, asylum-seekers arriving in Australian waters were transferred to “unsinkable” lifeboats at sea and pushed back toward Indonesia, from where the majority had set sail.

An Australian Customs officer with an Indonesian fisherman in waters near the two countries’ maritime border in a file photo. Photo: AFP

Most asylum-seekers travel by air or boat to Thailand, Singapore or Hong Kong, and then onward to Indonesia, which is favored because it is the closest point to Australia and has lax security measures. Crews for boats, often only teenagers, are hired in Indonesia by people-smuggling gangs.

Legislation passed in 2014 gives the Immigration Minister authority to detain people at sea, whether in Australia’s jurisdiction or in international waters, and then send them to other countries or on vessels. This can be done even without the permission or knowledge of countries where the asylum-seekers originated, or those where they were subsequently sent.

For “border security” reasons, arrival figures are no longer publicly released, but media reports suggest there has been only one boat arrival in 2018: all of those on board were sent back to Indonesia.

It is also unclear how many people are being held on Nauru, though the government has said 1,300 are detained at Australian centers, including some children. There were 700 at the Manus Island center, but it was shut last year. The government said they will not be resettled in Australia.

Relief agencies say asylum-seekers, who have to pay smugglers as much as US$6,000 for an often treacherous journey, no longer view Australia as a viable destination.

“[Boat] turn-backs … That’s the reason, not keeping people in offshore detention,” Iranian refugee and advocate Mozhgan Moarefizadeh told the Fairfax media group in Indonesia in August. “Australia is not accepting people. Their border is closed. That’s it, we don’t go,” she said.

Indonesia has claimed that Australian naval vessels intrude into its waters to intercept asylum-seekers, but so far has reluctantly backed the strategy. Jakarta is getting more restive, however, as the turn-backs have left 14,000 asylum-seekers in Indonesia with nowhere to go. There were virtually none before the policy began.

So if the risk of being overwhelmed by asylum-seekers has gone, why doesn’t Australia close the offshore detention centers and simply accept those left for resettlement while their claims are processed?

Australia’s incoming Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks at a press conference in Canberra on August 24, 2018. Photo: AFP/Saeed Khan

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who introduced the mandatory detention policy as immigration minister, points to what happened in 2008 when a Labor-led government abandoned detentions and the turn-back strategy: there was an upsurge in arrivals and about 1,000 people drowned at sea.

“I stopped the boats because I was sick of seeing people dying at sea. It was not an easy decision, it was a tough decision,” he said earlier this month when asked why asylum-seekers in need of medical attention couldn’t be treated in Australia.

“I understand the consequences of my decision, I weigh them up in the national interest, and I remain strong and firm in my decisions.”

Humanitarian groups say that scores of children are suffering from mental illnesses at the detention center on Nauru and that the government has blocked about 50 requests for medical attention.

Children as young as 10 have attempted suicide or stopped eating due to “resignation syndrome,” a condition in which detainees appear to lose all will to live. The High Court has overruled the government numerous times, ordering the relocation to Australia of children seen at risk.

They included a young girl who attempted suicide three times, a 14-year-old girl who doused herself in gasoline and set herself alight and a 14-year-old boy suffering from severe depression who refused to get out of bed for four months.

Last week, Morrison rejected an appeal from the respected Australian Medical Association for families and children to be brought to Australia; association president Tony Bartone bluntly described the situation on Nauru as a “humanitarian emergency requiring urgent intervention.”

Protesters call on the ruling Liberal coalition government to bring back 600 refugees from an Australian detention center in Papua New Guinea. Photo: AFP/William West

Morrison said he would not “put at risk any element of Australia’s border protection policy,” yet the government has already inadvertently put this to the test.

In 2016 it reached a deal for the US to resettle 1,250 people, sparking fears that asylum-seekers in Indonesia would try to capitalize. A massive security operation was mounted off Australia’s northern coast to deter arrivals, but it was not needed: not a single boat made the trip.

“The mindset suggested that if even one brick in the asylum-seeker deterrent system was removed, the entire building would collapse,” said Mann, who advocates relocating all detainees from offshore.

US President Donald Trump tried to scuttle the resettlement deal when he came to power, describing it as “dumb” in a memorable phone call to Morrison’s predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull.

Trump later relented when he was told the US need only conduct interviews and appear to be resettling people. So far only about 200 asylum-seekers have actually been accepted by the US.

It was Trump, famously intent on building a wall to keep Mexicans out of the US, who probably gave the biggest backhand endorsement of the Australian measures. “You are worse than I am,” he once informed Turnbull.

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