1

Australia’s Abdication on the High Seas

MELBOURNE – In a recent commentary, Gareth Evans describes Australia’s new policy for handling seaborne asylum seekers. Evans depicts this policy, proposed by a panel of experts as balanced, as being “aimed at reducing both ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors driving refugee flows.”

But the expert panel did not truly follow its own terms of reference – which emphasized the need to prevent people from drowning at sea. Instead, the panel focused on deterrence, penalizing asylum seekers who survive the journey to Australian shores by sending them to Nauru or Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, to wait their turn to be processed. But, given that this policy relies on their arriving by boat, many will still die at sea. Indeed, while the policy is still new, boat arrivals have shown no sign of diminishing.

The government has won support for this punitive approach by convincing the public that it is the only option for reducing the number of deaths at sea. But policymakers seem to have forgotten that when people are fleeing for their lives, when their family and friends have been brutalized, imprisoned, or killed, no democratic government’s deterrent can match the fear that drives them to try their luck on the high seas, packed into rickety boats.

In fact, rather than saving lives, this policy flies in the face of Australia’s international humanitarian obligations under the Refugee Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, especially given that unaccompanied children will be among the first to be sent to offshore detention. The fundamentally flawed concept of deterrence has no place in Australia’s refugee policy.