How Australia turned its back on the world’s refugee crisis

Updated 1:19 AM EDT, Fri July 1, 2016
Hodan Yasin, Somali asylum seeker who set fire to herself in Australian immigration center on Nauru.
Hodan Yasin, Somali asylum seeker who set fire to herself in Australian immigration center on Nauru.
Now playing
03:42
Woman sets herself on fire at refugee center
MYTILENE, GREECE - MAY 20: A refugee child plays alone at the Moria refugee camp on May 20, 2018 in Mytilene, Greece. Despite being built to hold only 2,500 people, the camp on the Greek island of Lesbos is home to over 6,000 asylum seekers who crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey's nearby shore by boat, usually at night to avoid interception. Although the numbers of arrivals are lower than at the beginning of the crisis in 2015, when Syrians and Iraqis fled ISIS-controlled strongholds, boatloads of refugees from those countries and other troubled areas continue to land there, and critics say the local governments have yet to manage the situation, leading the squalid conditions at Moria to be seen as symbolic of poorly-managed policy. The camp, on the site of a former military base, is comprised of shipping containers, tents, and improvised shelters of wooden pallets and tarps, whose residents stranded there complain of poor food, power failures, disease, lack of medical care, and poisonous snakes as they wait to obtain transfer to the mainland and less temporary legal status.  (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Adam Berry/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
MYTILENE, GREECE - MAY 20: A refugee child plays alone at the Moria refugee camp on May 20, 2018 in Mytilene, Greece. Despite being built to hold only 2,500 people, the camp on the Greek island of Lesbos is home to over 6,000 asylum seekers who crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey's nearby shore by boat, usually at night to avoid interception. Although the numbers of arrivals are lower than at the beginning of the crisis in 2015, when Syrians and Iraqis fled ISIS-controlled strongholds, boatloads of refugees from those countries and other troubled areas continue to land there, and critics say the local governments have yet to manage the situation, leading the squalid conditions at Moria to be seen as symbolic of poorly-managed policy. The camp, on the site of a former military base, is comprised of shipping containers, tents, and improvised shelters of wooden pallets and tarps, whose residents stranded there complain of poor food, power failures, disease, lack of medical care, and poisonous snakes as they wait to obtain transfer to the mainland and less temporary legal status. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:18
UNHCR: 52% of refugees are children
Now playing
00:56
From above: The Rohingya mass exodus
Habiba Mohamed, 38, and Abdalla Munye, 44, arrived in the United States just two days before President Donald Trump's inauguration. 
Their 20-year-old daughter, Batula Ramadan, was supposed to join them in Clarkston, Georgia, next week. But the Somalian refugees were devastated to learn that their daughter's trip was canceled due to Trump's executive order. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, they said they hoped the first lady could convince her husband to change his mind.
"My daughter right now is in a lot of pain. She's unable to express herself because of how much she's crying," Mohamed said. "I'm afraid she feels I abandoned her."


Decatur, Ga. on Tuesday, January 31, 2017.
PHOTO: Melissa Golden/Redux for CNN
Habiba Mohamed, 38, and Abdalla Munye, 44, arrived in the United States just two days before President Donald Trump's inauguration. Their 20-year-old daughter, Batula Ramadan, was supposed to join them in Clarkston, Georgia, next week. But the Somalian refugees were devastated to learn that their daughter's trip was canceled due to Trump's executive order. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, they said they hoped the first lady could convince her husband to change his mind. "My daughter right now is in a lot of pain. She's unable to express herself because of how much she's crying," Mohamed said. "I'm afraid she feels I abandoned her." Decatur, Ga. on Tuesday, January 31, 2017.
Now playing
05:20
Parents: 'We didn't intend to leave you behind'
Now playing
06:18
Why refugee doctors become taxi drivers
resettled refugees concern sp_00000000.jpg
resettled refugees concern sp_00000000.jpg
Now playing
01:57
Refugees worry about their future in US
resettled refugees Dream sp_00004905.jpg
resettled refugees Dream sp_00004905.jpg
Now playing
01:37
Refugees remember their American dreams
resettled refugees past sp_00011430.jpg
resettled refugees past sp_00011430.jpg
Now playing
02:13
Refugees: Why we came to the US
resettled refugees future sp_00003802.jpg
resettled refugees future sp_00003802.jpg
Now playing
01:25
Refugees still have hope for life in US
resettled refugees challenge sp_00004016.jpg
resettled refugees challenge sp_00004016.jpg
Now playing
01:12
Living in America: Refugees' big challenges
refugee legal limbo africa lah pkg ac_00025219.jpg
PHOTO: Family Photo
refugee legal limbo africa lah pkg ac_00025219.jpg
Now playing
03:06
Refugee father racing to reach wife, daughter
Elmo Facebook Live Refugees Jordan _00004125.jpg
Elmo Facebook Live Refugees Jordan _00004125.jpg
Now playing
06:03
Elmo shares how refugee kids are just like us
Now playing
00:59
Celebs team up to ask for refugee rights
refugees voting new day _00030608.jpg
refugees voting new day _00030608.jpg
Now playing
05:01
Refugees become first time voters in the U.S.
refugee baby born at sea soares pkg_00013515.jpg
PHOTO: MSF Sea
refugee baby born at sea soares pkg_00013515.jpg
Now playing
01:41
Baby born on refugee rescue boat
Refugees and migrants cross by boat the Aegean sea from Turkey, to reach the Greek island of Lesbos, on October 31, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS        (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Refugees and migrants cross by boat the Aegean sea from Turkey, to reach the Greek island of Lesbos, on October 31, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:57
Lifeguard, baby at sea: 'I broke this poor lady's heart'

Story highlights

Both major parties in Australia have agreed to turn back refugee boats heading towards the country

U.N. allegations of inhuman treatment of refugees were dismissed by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott

Editor’s Note: Claire Higgins is a research associate at the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN) —  

As the world works to resolve a major international refugee crisis, Australia just wants them to go away.

At the recent World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the international community to find new long-term solutions for refugees.

In Australia, however, political debate is more often about ways to stop refugees from reaching the country, especially in the lead up to that country’s national election on July 2.

Amid a record number of displaced people around the world, including an estimated nine million people in Asia, restrictive asylum policies have implications for refugee protection across the region and the world.

There are only a handful of signatories to the Refugee Convention in Southeast Asia, and Australia is one of them.

It therefore has a responsibility to offer access to fair and efficient procedures for the determination of refugee claims.

Refugees turned back at sea

Currently, a policy of turning back asylum seeker boats at sea is supported by the two main political parties, the center-right Liberal/National Coalition and center-left Labor, but rejected by minor party the Australian Greens.

The issue of “turn-backs” has resulted in breaches of international law and caused tension with Indonesia, while asylum seekers have been interrogated and jailed upon their forced return to Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

A focus on deterring asylum seekers limits the promotion of human rights in the region and farther afield, and impedes the achievement of a protection framework that is so sorely needed.

Australia has refrained from publicly commenting on human rights violations committed by those countries with whom it cooperates on turning asylum seeker boats back.

It declined to back a 2014 U.N. resolution for an international inquiry into alleged atrocities during the closing stages of the Sri Lankan civil war, and since then both the current Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, have confirmed that support for the Rajapaksa government secured its assistance in preventing Sri Lankans from fleeing to Australia.

Human right violations dismissed

Australia is now lobbying for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council from 2018 to 2020, although it received criticism under the second Universal Periodic Review for its refugee policies.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture found that Australia has violated the rights of asylum seekers, including children, to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment – findings that were publicly dismissed by former Prime Minister Abbott.

Papua New Guinea and the small Pacific island nation of Nauru continue to hold around 2,200 asylum seekers and refugees, under Australia’s offshore detention, processing and settlement arrangements.

The offshore regime has influenced immigration debates in Europe, but its future is now uncertain.

The Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled in April 2016 that the detention center in that country is illegal and is moving to close it, while Nauru cannot offer permanent settlement for those detainees found to be refugees.

Deal with Canada?

The minority party the Greens have pledged to bring these asylum seekers and refugees to Australia, while the Coalition and Labor insist they must be sent to third countries.

Third country alternatives have proved elusive, but the idea has attracted criticism around the world.

In 2014, the Coalition paid $55 million (US$41 million) for a failed resettlement deal with Cambodia, and Cambodian opposition MPs have urged the Australian government to reconsider the arrangement.

The Coalition government has also tried to secure resettlement for refugees in Kyrgyzstan and the Philippines, and now both Labor and the Coalition have fueled rumors that they will seek to negotiate the settlement of refugees in Canada.

Officials at Citizenship and Immigration Canada have said that no approach has been forthcoming, but with Canada having now resettled 25,000 Syrian refugees, compared to Australia’s few hundred, the Canadian press have been quick to denounce the idea that their country should provide the easy answer to Australia’s political issue.

UN asks Australia to take more refugees

Secretary-General Ban personally urged the Australian government in November 2015 to recognize its international obligations toward refugees.

The nation is already one of around 33 countries that agree to accept a particular number of refugees each year as a contribution to global resettlement efforts, and has a long history of involvement in regional refugee affairs.

Ahead of a high-level U.N. General Assembly meeting this September that will aim to secure the equitable sharing of responsibility for refugees, this is the legacy on which Australia should build.

Editor’s Note: Claire Higgins is a research associate at the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. The views expressed are her own.