Magazine article Forced Migration Review

A Return to the 'Pacific Solution'

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

A Return to the 'Pacific Solution'

Article excerpt

Over the last 50 years, Australian governments have introduced a range of measures that seek to deter asylum seekers. Current practice sees asylum seekers once again detained in offshore detention in neighbouring countries.

According to the Australian government, Australia's response to refugees in need of formal resettlement is generous. Australia operates a formal UNHCR resettlement process, whereby after having complied with Australia's health and character requirements, refugees are offered protection in Australia. For most of the refugees resettled in this way, the journey to Australia is decades long, with many years spent waiting in refugee camps.

This 'generosity' to refugees is in stark contrast to Australia's response to the 'spontaneous' arrival of 'unauthorised' asylum seekers. Despite receiving relatively few asylum seekers compared to other industrialised nations, Australia has a welldeveloped punitive and restrictive approach to the arrival of asylum seekers by boat. In many cases, these asylum seekers have also waited in refugee camps for many years but for a variety of reasons have not been offered formal resettlement or have been unable to access the formal process. Both the Australian media and the government link these arrivals with illegal people-smuggling operations, with the individual asylum seekers characterised as 'illegal immigrants' who have 'jumped the queue' by arriving in Australia outside the formal UNHCR process.

The number of asylum seekers to arrive in Australian waters is increasing; in the first six months of 2013 Australia received almost 13,000 asylum seekers by boat. Due to the poor quality of the boats used by people smugglers to carry asylum seekers, the increase in boat arrivals is matched with an increase in the number of deaths at sea. Over the last 10 years there have been almost 1,000 deaths of asylum seekers in Australian waters. In response to both the increasing arrivals and the unacceptable number of deaths at sea, the Australian government has expended much energy searching for a solution to the asylum seeker 'problem'.

Seeking asylum in Australia

In 1976, a small number of individuals made their way to Australia by boat to seek asylum. These asylum seekers, called 'boat people', mark the beginning of Australia's association with asylum seekers who arrive without prior authorisation. While these first arrivals were small in number and were accepted with little public concern, over the following four years asylum seeker numbers increased and so did public anxiety. In response, the Australian government introduced a policy of direct resettlement of refugees from camps in Southeast Asia. This resulted in a larger and more formal process for resettlement in Australia, also leading to a reduction in the need for asylum seekers to travel to Australia by boat. To the Australian public, this process appeared to be more ordered and was largely accepted as a legitimate response to the refugee situation in Southeast Asia.

By 1989, further instability in Southeast Asia resulted in a new wave of asylum seekers arriving by boat on Australia's shores. From this point forward, a system of mandatory detention, including detaining asylum seekers in centres located in isolated and remote areas of Australia with limited access to the legal system, was applied to all asylum seekers. Most of these asylum seekers were never resettled in Australia but instead were repatriated after a lengthy period of detention.

This system of mandatory detention coped well with the small number of asylum seekers arriving in the early 1990s. However, increased instability in the Middle East in the late 1990s resulted in a relatively large number of asylum seeker arrivals from Afghanistan and Iraq, increasing pressure on Australia's onshore detention facilities. These arrivals triggered negative public opinion and significant public concern about the strength of Australia's borders. …

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