Controversy Continues Regarding Australia’s Treatment of Asylum Seekers

by Gabrielle Dennis

Continuing discussion about Syrian refugees has highlighted international concerns about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. Australia joined the United States, Canada and many other nations in September 2015, by offering to take refugees displaced by the Syrian Civil War. Prime Minister at the time, Tony Abbott, pledged to take 12,000 refugees affected by ISIS.[1] Less than two months later, however, he was encouraging Europe to take a stronger stance towards taking refugees, in a style more similar to Australia, in order to prevent “fundamentally weakening itself.”[2] This dichotomy shows the complexity of the issue of asylum seekers in Australian politics.

As a member of the United Nations, Australia is bound by international human rights laws to take in those fleeing atrocities and persecution, and to protect them during their stay in Australia. With a population of only 24 million,[3] however, determining how to deal with these refugees is problematic for the Australian Government and its people. The arrival of ‘boat people’ has been a developing issue in Australian politics starting in the seventies, and peaking around 2012, when the deaths of over 880 people in the seas surrounding Australia caused widespread national concern.[4]

Australia’s current response to the arrival of asylum seekers is to turn back boats before they reach Australian soil, sending them back to their point of origin, often Indonesia.[5] This move has increased Australian-Indonesian tensions, combined with allegations that Australian officials have even paid off smugglers to turn their boats back to Indonesia last year. The Australian government refuses to directly comment on this charge.

Asylum seekers who the Australian Navy and Coast Guard do not turn back at sea are settled in one of Australia’s detention centers on Christmas Island, on Papua New Guinea, or on Nauru before processing. The assumption is that this will help deter immigrants by delaying their entry into Australia. Though halting the boats may save lives by preventing unsafe smuggling, many of the offshore detention facilities, Nauru in particular, are dealing with accusations of breeches of human rights conventions, such as poor living conditions and sexual assault by guards on women and children.[6] Despite this, Australia’s High Court has refuted challenges to Australia’s immigration laws in February of this year that might change the laws and use of such facilities, stating that its laws are “legally and constitutionally valid.”[7] Thus far there has been no change in policy.

Despite support for these immigration laws from both major political parties in Australia, there are many Australian groups taking action for refugees, such as the Refugee Council of Australia and the Youth Action Project.[8] Many everyday Australians are also supporting asylum seekers. On February 4 many churches offered sanctuary while people around the country gathered together for #LetThemStay rallies to protest the deportation of 267 asylum seekers back to Nauru as a result of this most recent High Court ruling on asylum seekers.[9] As nations continue to try to help people displaced by wars and unrest in Syria and around the world, Australia will continue to grapple with how to best deal with its asylum seekers under the watchful eye of its people and the United Nations.




[1] Austin Ramzy, “Tony Abbott Says Australia Will Accept 12,000 More Refugees” The New York Times, (September 9, 2015): Accessed April 14, 2016.

[2] Austin Ramzy, “Tony Abbott, Ousted Australian Leader, Urges Europe to Take Hard Line on Migrants.” The New York Times (October 28, 2015): Accessed March 30, 2016.

[3] Nathan Stitt and staff, “Australia’s ‘Population Clock’ Ticks Past 24 Million.” ABC News (February 16, 2016): Accessed April 14, 2016.

[4] Michelle Innis, “Australia’s Policy on Migrants Questioned After Smuggler Says He Was Bribed to Turn Back” The New York Times (June 21, 2015): Accessed April 13, 2016.

[5] Michelle Innis, “Australia’s Policy on Migrants Questioned After Smuggler Says He Was Bribed to Turn Back” The New York Times (June 21, 2015): Accessed April 13, 2016.

[6] Michelle Innis, “Australia’s Policy on Migrants Questioned After Smuggler Says He Was Bribed to Turn Back” The New York Times (June 21, 2015): Accessed April 13, 2016.

[7] Michelle Innis, “Australia’s Top Court Rejects Challenge to Migrant Detention System.” The New York Times (February 3, 2016): Accessed March 30, 2016.

[8] “Asylum Seeker Resource Centre | Youth Action Project (YAP) Leadership Intensive Brings Together Current and Future Leaders of Refugee Advocacy.” Accessed April 18, 2016.

[9] Elle Hunt, Melissa Davey, Calla Wahlquist, Shalailah Medhora, Paul Karp, Daniel Hurst, and Ben Doherty. “#LetThemStay: Protesters Gather around Australia to Prevent Return of Asylum Seekers to Nauru – Live.” The Guardian (February 4, 2016): Accessed April 18, 2016.

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