From the documentary film “Waking up the Nation”, photograph by Richard Schweizer

In April 2010, Australia imposed a blanket suspension on new asylum claims by Sri Lankans and Afghans, contending that the security situations in those countries have improved.  In response, human rights groups have criticized Australia for not examining each asylum claim individually and for treating refugees in a discriminatory manner.  Although Australia lifted the ban on processing the claims of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka last month, the halt on Afghan asylum seekers remains in place.

As Australia’s federal election on August 21, 2010 approaches, the country’s asylum policy has become the key source of political debate.  Australia’s governing Labor party is considering setting up an overseas regional processing center for asylum seekers so that their claims can be processed before making the unsafe journey to Australia by boat.  Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently proposed establishing the processing center in East Timor, but the plan was rejected by East Timor’s parliament.  Contrary to the Labor party’s policy, the conservative opposition coalition, comprised of the Liberal Party of Australia and the National Party of Australia, suggests reopening a detention center for asylum seekers on the South Pacific island of Nauru.  The processing center in Nauru was funded by Australia and operated by the International Organization for Migration for six years until it was closed in 2008 due to allegations of human rights abuses at the facility.  The opposition argues that sending the asylum seekers to Nauru will deter asylum seekers from traveling to Australia by boat.

Therefore, both Labor and the opposition coalition agree on the establishment of an offshore processing center for asylum seekers, but disagree on center’s location.  The Labor party asserts that Australia should set up a processing center in a country that has signed the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (“1951 Refugee Convention”).  Additionally, the Labor party objects to locating the center in Nauru on account of past allegations of human rights violations.  The opposition coalition contends that Nauru is better positioned to manage the processing center now than it was when the facility was first opened in 2001.  Regardless of the chosen location for a processing center, Australians are concerned about the protection of the integrity and security of their country’s borders.

Australia’s border protection policy of deterring the arrival of asylum seekers raises significant questions about the country’s compliance with its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Australia is a signatory.  As a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Australia is obligated to protect asylum seekers fleeing from violence and persecution and who may have a genuine claim to asylum.  However, forcibly sending asylum seekers who arrive on Australia’s shores to an overseas processing center may not guarantee their effective protection.  Unlike the practices within the European Union, where Member States share the burden of processing asylum seekers’ claims, Australia has no legitimate basis for detaining the asylum seekers in Nauru or East Timor.  The common borders of the Member States of the European Union necessitate the establishment of similar standards and procedures to process asylum claims.  However, neither Nauru nor East Timor has comparable asylum standards and procedures, and the asylum seekers have no connection with either location.

Australian political parties’ exclusive focus on protecting Australia’s borders undermines an individual’s “right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,” as guaranteed by Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Moreover, the country’s policy generates a negative perception of asylum seekers by mischaracterizing them as invaders rather than individuals who need legal protection.  As the acting Asia Director at Human Rights Watch stated on August 8, 2010, Australia’s focus on deterring asylum seekers “risks cutting off asylum to those who really need protection.”

Instead of placing asylum seekers in another country, Australia should process the claims of each asylum seeker without unnecessary delay and devise a border protection strategy that fulfils its human rights obligations under international law.