It has been a long and horrifying two months for refugees and asylum seekers seeking protection in Australia. Many new directives, plans and an increasingly brutal border control regime have led to a mounting crisis that legal experts are increasingly referring to as criminal.
Here are five ways the government have made the treatment of asylum seekers worse.
CLOSING DETENTION CENTRES IN AUSTRALIA TO EXPAND OFFSHORE
The government has announced its plan to “wind back the onshore network” of detention centres, feeling that all new arrivals could be sent to the Nauru and Manus Island detention camps in a 48 hour turnaround.
Four of Australia’s low-security detention centres will be closed by the end of next month, immigration minister Scott Morrison said on January 15. The centres — at Scherger in north Queensland, Port Augusta in South Australia, Leonora in Western Australia and Pontville in Tasmania — held 285 people, including families and unaccompanied minors, who will be moved to other detention facilities.
Morrison said it was a “clear message” to asylum seekers that they won’t get a chance to settle in Australia. It also means Nauru and Manus Island will soon be receiving more detainees.
This month, there were 841 asylum seekers held on Nauru, and 1229 held on Manus Island. Crowded, primitive and subject to extreme monsoonal climates, conditions have grown alarmingly worse at those camps.
This has led to escalating protests on Christmas Island, where lip-stitching, suspected eye-lid stitching and hunger strikes plagued the centre, as detainees hold rising fears over where they will be sent.
NO PERMANENT VISA, BUT SIGN THIS 'CODE OF CONDUCT'
Despite a joint effort by federal Labor and the Greens in the Senate last year to stop legislation allowing temporary protection visas, Morrison has maintained that genuine refugees will receive only “non-permanent” visas. All 30,000 refugees in Australia, either living on bridging visas or in community detention, will be affected by this.
Now they are being forced to sign a “code of conduct” issued by Morrison; if they do not sign it they will be thrown back in detention or sent offshore. The code is “a list of expectations about how you will behave at all times”.
One restriction is on “antisocial and disruptive activities”, which Morrison described as “overcrowding in particular accommodation”.
Most refugees on bridging visas live on an allowance less than the dole, so sharing one room between many is the only way to afford accommodation. This is considered “anti-social” and “disruptive” under the code of conduct, yet thousands are forced to do it every night. It means that any individual asylum seeker could be arbitrarily re-detained without committing any actual crime or offence.
FAMILY REUNIONS ARE THE LOWEST PRIORITY
Morrison has now also issued an official directive instructing migration agents to put family visa applications sponsored by “illegal maritime arrivals (IMAs)” — that is, refugees who arrived by boat — at the bottom of the pile.
The directive was issued last month, listing the order in which “family stream” visas should be considered or disposed. “Applications in which the applicant’s sponsor (or proposed sponsor) is a person who entered Australia as an Illegal Maritime Arrival and holds a permanent visa,” was listed last.
A January 7 email to registered migration agents said: “This Direction states that Family Migration visa applications sponsored by IMAs will be given the lowest processing priority.”
The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) chair Sonia Caton said such a policy would lead to more deaths: “Family sponsorship is often their only hope of getting to safety. Denying family reunion opportunities to refugees in Australia will cut off this lifeline and trap vulnerable people in desperate situations.
“Tragically, RCOA is already aware of cases where family members of refugees in Australia have been killed overseas following delays in family reunion.”
SECRETIVE GOVERNMENT ACCUSES ASYLUM SEEKERS OF "SPINNING STORIES"
After an ABC exclusive showed footage of African asylum seekers with burned hands and other wounds they say were inflicted by Australian navy personnel who diverted their boat, Australian politicians liberally implied the injured men were all lying.
PM Tony Abbott said he accepted the navy’s flat denial that its people forced the refugee men to hold their hands against the boat’s hot engine pipes.
The navy’s version of events, the Australian reported, said that the burns may have been caused by the men themselves, by trying to restart the engine or even the baseless allegations that they were “self-inflicted”.
Despite Indonesian police supporting the refugee men’s claims, and an Indonesian government spokesperson describing it as “torture”, Morrison ignored calls for an independent investigation. Instead, he accused the men of having “high levels of motivation for spinning stories in order to undermine this government's [border control].”
DEHUMANISE TO DEMONISE
Yet navy cruelty in the midst of Abbott’s “Operation Sovereign Borders” agenda is more plausible than refugees lying to Australian reporters. The navy has also been accused of firing “warning shots” at another boat on open seas.
Morrison and Abbott’s aim has been to inflame racism and hatred of “boat people”. Forcing navy officers to patrol the northern seas and engage in risky turn-back operations is designed to stoke this resentment.
This resentment can be seen in a Facebook post last year by a navy member, who said he was going to “deal with these fuckers”. AAP reported that in another case, a refugee had asked for help for his wife, to which the officer allegedly responded: “F— your wife and f— your mother.” The officers also demanded to know why the refugee had “come this way”, AAP said.
Many in the navy’s ranks, along with 59% of Australians according to a recent poll, believe the people on these boats are not genuine refugees and should be treated more harshly.
This is a sign that the Coalition’s policies are working — turning Australians against asylum seekers, blaming the victim, and inciting the type of viciousness exhibited by navy members are all part of the government’s end game.