Is Australia’s new asylum policy the harshest in its history?

By Azadeh Dastyari

Last week’s announcement is perhaps harsher than any asylum policy we have had in our recent history. It attempts to achieve what the Howard government’s Pacific Solution could not: that is, to ensure that no refugees are in fact resettled in Australia. Whether it can achieve this aim is a big question. The success of Australia’s plan relies on the ability of PNG to resettle large numbers of refugees. Given PNG’s relative poverty and inte rnational challenges, this will be no easy task. It seems unrealistic to assume that the so called RRA [Regional Resettlement Agreement] can be a sustainable solution to Australia’s refugee “problem”.

The difference between the RRA and the Howard era “Pacific Solution” as it operated in Nauru is that PNG is a signatory to the UNU refugee convention, where as prior to 2011 Nauru was not. The announcement that PNG would withdraw its reservations with regards to wage earning employment (Article 17:1), housing (Article 21), public education (Article 22:1), freedom of movement (Article 31), expulsion (Article 32) and the facilitation of the naturalisation of refugees (Article 34) is a welcome development. PNG must ensure that it abides by its entire set of obligations under the refugee convention and other human rights instruments.

What was not discussed adequately in the announcement is the continuing policy of mandatory immigration detention on Manus Island. Both Australia and PNG are signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and under article 9 of that convention are required to refrain from arbitrary detention. Immigration detention, as it currently exists on Manus Island, is in violation of article 9 of the ICCPR.

We also know, from UNHCR reports, that the detention facility in Manus Island is “harsh” and inhumane. So inhumane and unacceptable in fact, that as acknowledged in the announcement by the Minister for Immigration, children have recently been removed from the centre. Rudd said that they would need to respond to the UNHCR but there is no reason to believe that conditions in the detention facility can be improved to allow the return of children given the isolation of the centre and the lack of support to detainees.

In any case, the policy of mandatory immigration detention should be abandoned entirely if Australia and PNG are serious about compliance with their international obligations.

This is a shorter version of an article which originally appeared on The Guardian’s website here.

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