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Our Australian blindside

By David Holdcroft - posted Wednesday, 10 May 2006

In proposing to move all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to Nauru and Manus Island for processing, the Australian Government is creating a world first in international refugee protection. The Prime Minister claims that it is a step forward and that Australia will continue to fulfil its international obligations. Instead Australia risks placing the burden of these obligations on the refugees themselves, at the same time isolating itself further from the international community whose legitimate reforms Australia’s government continues to spurn.

Sections of the Australian government have long held the belief that the international system for refugee protection has broken down and an unreasonable amount of money is spent in processing asylum applicants. Our long and difficult to protect coastline undoubtedly makes sections of the Australian public especially sensitive to these arguments.

However the proposals put forward are not likely to achieve a better international system and instead will place more pressure on the existing system. Nor is it going to be cheap. Most importantly, it places the human rights and welfare of asylum claimants increasingly at risk.


The international protection system rests on a number of core principles, departure from any one of which constitutes a serious threat to the integrity of the system.

The first fundamental principle is that asylum claimants who arrive without documents in a country are legally and morally entitled to claim asylum and to have the claim processed according to the laws of that country. They are also entitled to live with dignity during the time their claim is being processed. Forcing asylum claimants into off shore processing centres places them outside Australia’s legal jurisdiction, so rendering them without the right of appeal. At the same time their care and the processing of claims will be less open to scrutiny.

Experience has shown time and again that asylum seekers must begin to rebuild their lives as soon as possible and that positive outcomes occur when they are able to make connections with likely host communities at the earliest opportunity. Otherwise there is inevitably a rapid loss of psychological and physical health, which may become irreparable over time.

Offshore processing represents forced removal and is tantamount to punishing asylum seekers because of the manner in which they arrived on Australian soil, both of which are breaches of the Convention for the Status of Refugees.

The second fundamental principle involves the co-operation of contracting states in responding to the irregular movement of people. The proposed amendments shift the burden of responsibility to other states in a manner that is unlikely to be embraced by those states: the burden will be carried by the asylum seekers themselves

The experience of asylum seekers previously detained on Nauru suggests claimants will be detained far longer than is necessary while resettlement is found and that eventually, in most cases, Australia will be forced to accept the refugees. Such protracted detention risks “warehousing” with all the documented deleterious physical and psychological effects that it produces.


The changes also create a precedent in which a wealthy state with an existing working system of asylum protection and which is under no threat of “mass influx”, unilaterally decides to deflect its responsibility for processing asylum claims.

Ironically, the very existence of our offshore humanitarian program, which Minister Vanstone rightly describes as most generous and effective, relies upon the operation of an effective international system of refugee processing and protection. The changes put this system at risk.

The third and most serious principle is that of non refoulement, the proscription of returning asylum seekers to the situation of persecution from which they are fleeing. Lack of public scrutiny of offshore facilities and processing combined with the effect of increased naval patrols in northern waters creates a higher risk of refoulement. On the information available, the government’s proposals do not adequately safeguard against this possibility.

No country chooses asylum seekers arriving on their shores. What we can choose is the manner in which we respond. Minister Vanstone asserts that asylum seekers cannot be allowed to dictate where and by whom their claims will be heard. A far better alternative to this responsibility and blame shifting is to work with the international community in reforming the system of protection and burden sharing.

Australia has yet to embrace the many advances and reforms already enacted in other parts of the world. One fails to see how locking people up where they are unseen and unheard will advance the welfare and cause of refugees and asylum seekers, intergovernmental co-operation, and the national interest.

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About the Author

Fr David Holdcroft SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (Australia).

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