After Years in Limbo, the New Australian Asylum Seeker Program Promises to be More Humane

Painting by Syed Ruhollah Musavi. Photographed by Newtown Grafitti.

By Zuleyka Zevallos

Australia’s refugee policies have been increasingly problematic since the 2001 lead up to the Federal election, which was focused on “the problem of boat people” and the so-called “Tampa Boat Crisis”. A new program that links asylum seekers with Australian families is causing some controversy, but it promises to be a more humane alternative to off shore detention of refugees.

In August 2011, the media beamed images of refugees being rescued off an overcrowded, sinking fishing vessel that was stranded six hours away from one of Australia’s offshore territories, Christmas Island. The Tampa was the ship that answered their distress call for rescue.

The then-Liberal government and mainstream media interpreted the images of women and children seemingly being plunged into the sea for rescue as proof that people smugglers were manufacturing sympathy for people seeking to enter Australia under a refugee status. Sociologist Katharine Betts argues that support for immigration had been decreasing steadily since the late 1980s whilst support for border control had been rising. The Tampa crisis seemed to intensify public anxiety about border protection. Australian sociologist Peter Gale argued that the subsequent public debates were bound up with racist fears of Muslim migrants.  Other advocates and academics further note that such xenophobia intensified after the September 11 attacks in the USA(Betts disputes such assertions, arguing that the Tampa debate reflects public desire for national cohesion.) 

Anti-refugee sentiment also centred around people smugglers enabling “queue jumpers” – that is, migrants who were not following protocol in seeking asylum via the legal methods. Studies find that this vexing argument continues to hold sway with public perception in the present day, despite the fact that Australia does not always have an embassy in war torn or conflict-afflicted countries where people can go and apply for asylum. A survey of 1,000 Australians undertaken for the United Nations Refugee Agency was released yesterday. It finds that whilst many people have some sympathy for refugees, they also hold highly negative views of them as “queue jumpers” and “boat people”.

Public commentators contributing to the hyperbole surrounding Australia’s immigration policies regarding “boat people” fundamentally ignored the fact that only a tiny minority of people enter Australia in unauthorised boats. The Australian Bureau of Statics shows that in the 2001-2002 period, Australia’s population was 19.7 million, which included a net migration growth of 133,700 people. Of this group, only 2,400 people arrived without authorisation. Also in 2001, half the people who entered Australia without the required documentation arrived by plane and overstayed their temporary visas (usually students or people on holidays).

All nations police their borders and exercise the right to screen potential migrants and asylum seeker applications. Nevertheless, over the past decade, both the Liberal and Labor governments have subsequently struggled to manage asylum visa processing in a humane way. These two most recent Australian governments have invested in off shore processing of refugees. This effectively means locking asylum seekers in detention centres off the mainland, for protracted periods of time that drag out over several months. The Australian Human Rights Commission President reports that in 2011, there were 4,000 people in detention. Seventy percent of these people had been detained for over six months and the rest had been in detention for over 12 months. Asylum seekers wait for their asylum applications to be processed in limbo. As many asylum seekers have first-hand experience with war and trauma, this experience often leads to further psychological stress, particularly for children. Three men committed suicide in the Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney in 2010. Following an inquest, the New South Wales Coroner found that detention centre was “chaotic”, as staff did not follow proper procedures. Staff were found to be be “careless” or “ignorant”, while one staff member engaged in “deplorable” treatment of the asylum seekers entrusted to their care. Asylum seekers in other Australian detention centres as well as overseas have undertaken hunger strikes in protest of their treatment whilst in detention and awaiting visa processing.
The latest refugee program currently being trialled by the Labor government is no less controversial, but it promises to be more ethical. While detention centres continue to operate off and on shore, the current program involves Australian families volunteering to host asylum seekers in their homes for a six week period, in an effort to help integrate newcomers into Australian society. The video below by SBS News provides a brief insight into one of the homes participating in the “asylum home-stay program”. The program is being defended on financial grounds. SBS News reports that the home-stay program costs $AU140 dollars a week plus food, while detention centres cost $A2,600 dollars per person. Only a minority of refugees are currently eliglible for this home-stay program. They are the lucky few who have been allowed to enter Australian society on bridging visas as they seek to find work and permanent housing during the six week program. Around 800 asylum seekers are scheduled to participate in this program this year.

SBS News: Inside the asylum homestay program. 19 June 2012:

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Learn More

Read more on Australian asylum seekers who arrive by boat on the Refugee Council of Australia website.

Watch Four Corners from October 2011, a show dedicated to the plight of asylum seekers in detention centres.

Update: About the painting featured in this post: Newtown Graffiti, who photographed this image, says of the painter: “Syed Ruhollah Musavi, [is] a refugee who spent a long time in detention after arriving in Australia by boat (photographed with permission)”. Via Flickr.

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