Legacy of Australia’s Immigration Policies Haunts Survivors and Supporters

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Natasha Frost, a reporter in Melbourne.

Last year, my colleague Yan Zhuang reported on a group of men who had been abruptly relocated to a motel in Melbourne after almost a decade of being detained in camps offshore. They had originally come to Australia seeking asylum.

Yan describes a group of people grappling with medical problems, physical and psychological scars, and uncertain futures on precarious visas. After being moved to the mainland, each had been given a few hundred dollars and accommodation for a couple of weeks and left, with the aid of a caseworker, to work their way through bewildering immigration bureaucracy.

“Reporting this story, I was struck by how hard it was for the men to comprehend the reason for their detention,” she told me. “They understood, in theory, the politics behind it, but how could they reconcile that with the scale of the loss they suffered — of a decade of their youth, their health, their freedom?”

Australia’s unyielding approach to refugees — which includes a system of indefinite mandatory detention for people suspected to be in the country unlawfully — is among the strictest in the world.

Since 2013, the country’s navy has turned back boats with migrants or asylum-seekers to prevent them from ever reaching its shores. Those who successfully make it to Australia have been held for years on end at detention centers run by private contractors on nearby islands.

The Australian government has employed extreme secrecy to conceal conditions in those detention camps, including making it illegal for employees to discuss the conditions there publicly and all but banning journalists from gaining access to them. As recently as last month, the Labor government reauthorized offshore immigration detention on the island of Nauru.

Australia defends these policies as crucial to managing immigration and preventing deaths at sea. The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor has described them as “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” and unlawful under international law. (They’re also extremely expensive, costing taxpayers an estimated 9.65 billion Australian dollars over the past decade, or about $6.35 billion, for offshore processing alone.)

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, states are prohibited from penalizing asylum-seekers on the basis of having arrived without prior authorization. The law is informed by tragedies like that of the St. Louis, a German boat with 937 passengers, most Jewish refugees, which in 1939 was refused access to Cuba, the United States and Canada. The boat was eventually turned back to Europe, where about a quarter of those passengers were later killed in the Holocaust.

In theory, the convention permits one state to take another to the International Court of Justice. But none has ever done so, said Michelle Foster, a professor at Melbourne Law School and the director of the Peter McMullin Center on Statelessness.

“The reality is, it seems very unlikely for that ever to be a mechanism that will provide any sort of recourse, so we can’t really get a binding determination from the International Court of Justice around whether this policy complies,” she said, of Australia’s approach to detaining asylum-seekers who arrive by boat.

In 2015, an opinion essay by The Times editorial board described Australia’s policies as “unconscionable,” as well as “inhumane, of dubious legality and strikingly at odds with the country’s tradition of welcoming people fleeing persecution and war.”

Those same policies appear to be the playbook for proposed legislation in Britain that would give the Home Office a “duty” to remove nearly all migrants who cross the English Channel on small boats, as my colleague Megan Specia reports.

The proposed legislation would allow the government to swiftly detain and deport anyone who arrives “in breach of immigration control,” the bill reads. “The main thing they have in common is in seeking to criminalize, almost, asylum, or at least to undermine the right to an institution of asylum,” said Ms. Foster, the legal scholar, of Britain’s and Australia’s policies.

“The Australian policy has been premised for a long time on the notion that if one arrives without prior authorization — and regardless of whether or not that individual is a refugee — that they’re somehow doing the wrong thing,” she said. “They’re illegal, they’re unlawful, they’re ‘unauthorized maritime arrival.’”

Even the three-word slogan is the same: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain appeared on Tuesday behind a pulpit emblazoned with the rallying cry “Stop the boats.” Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister, used precisely the same language to promote his own policy a decade ago.

As in Australia, the policy is of questionable legality. On the first page of the proposed legislation, Suella Braverman, the British home secretary, writes that she is “unable to make a statement” that the bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. (The proposed legislation follows a plan by the government to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda that is currently being challenged in court.)

Some in Australia who have seen the effects of the policy and the tremendous suffering it has provoked find it unconscionable that it should be used as inspiration elsewhere.

Katie Robertson is a lawyer and the director of the Stateless Legal Clinic at the Melbourne Law School who has spent the last 10 years advocating for men, women, children and newborn babies who have been subjected to the policy. She has worked with people who were held in dangerous conditions with inadequate medical care or forcibly separated from their families, or who have experienced unspeakable trauma.

“The devastating human impact these policies had on the lives of many can’t be overestimated,” she said. Years after being held offshore, she said, children she had worked with were still displaying very disturbing and concerning behaviors.

“Australia, as a nation — we will never be able to address the wrong that’s been caused to these people,” she said, of the policy. She added: “It should serve as a warning, rather than a blueprint.”

Here are the week’s stories.

Australia and New Zealand

The crew of the USS Delaware last month. A new submarine deal adds complexities to a 2021 security pact between Australia, Britain and the United States, known as AUKUS.Credit…Samuel Corum for The New York Times

Australia to Buy U.S. Nuclear-Powered Submarines in Deal to Counter China. The arrangement also involves submarine construction by Britain and deepens a strategic partnership that the three countries have formed as China continues to build up its military.

Ans Westra, 86, Dies; Her Photos Captured a Changing New Zealand. She created a comprehensive record of the country’s social history, her focus often falling outside the white conservative mainstream.

Georgina Beyer, 65, Dies; Considered First Transgender Parliament Member. A New Zealand lawmaker, she fought for the rights of sex workers, L.G.B.T.Q. and Māori people, and won a battle to legalize civil unions for couples of any gender.

China Increasingly Seen as Antagonist in Diplomatic Talks Around the World. Tensions over China arise in many gatherings of global leaders and diplomats, as Beijing increasingly plays a spoiler role, often siding with Russia.

Around the Times

Treasure Beach is a haven of community tourism in Jamaica, where visitors can get out from behind their resort walls.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Encountering Another Jamaica. A writer explores the island beyond its popular all-inclusive resorts, seeking out guesthouses owned by locals, and experiences beyond the beaches. She finds mountain views, cascading waterfalls and a sense of place.

With Its Future at Stake, the Academy Tries to Fix the Oscars (Again). The awards telecast has been losing viewers for years. New leadership wants to reverse that starting Sunday, and ensure the financial well-being of the organization.

Are You a Cubicle Cat or a Couch Koala? Personality assessment has ballooned into a giant industry that aims to explain your working style. Take our quiz to find out what kind of office creature you are.

3 Arrested in Japan Over a Viral Stunt Branded ‘Sushi Terrorism’. A young man licked a soy sauce bottle in a restaurant, in one of several cases that have provoked a national wave of revulsion.

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