This interview with Amnesty International's Australian refugee coordinator Graham Thom, was broadcast on Radio 3CR in Melbourne on March 4.
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Amnesty International has put out a media release criticising the Australian government's draconian laws against refugees. Why did you do that?
Every year Amnesty International releases a global review of the human rights situation around the world. It is an opportunity to raise the profile of human rights and to see which governments introduced important initiatives to improve human rights and where are the countries we think human rights are failing.
It is disappointing that in the past year Australia's laws on refugees and asylum seekers became even more draconian. In a year in which there are record numbers of refugees — nearly 60 million people are now displaced and on the move around the world — Australia took extraordinary measures to stop people from coming here and to undermine the systems of international protection.
There is a basic principle known as non-refoulement, which means you should not send people back to countries where they face torture or death. This is something that Australia has abided by for decades and it underpins the UN Refugee Convention that Australia helped to write and was one of the first countries to sign.
Yet in 2015, Australia not only stopped boats, it took boats back to countries like Vietnam from where people had fled.
Last year was quite an extraordinary year. Literally millions of people continued to flow out of Syria and into Europe, yet Australia spent millions of dollars to detain a few thousand people on remote islands like Nauru and Manus Island. If Australia had the will, extraordinary things could have been achieved with those resources.
This is not unusual though. Your report says many other countries are also shutting their doors to refugees from war-torn nations, wars that are created, supported and funded by western nations.
The report looks at a number of different countries and I think what happened in Europe in some ways was heartening and in other ways was very sad. We did see countries open their borders and Germany made very positive noises about the need to protect people, but other countries, such as Hungary, Macedonia and others, are putting up fences to stop people from entering.
We listed 30 countries that, like Australia, sent people back to countries where they faced human rights violations.
However, an extraordinary thing happened in this region in May last year to the Rohingya, who had fled ongoing persecution in Burma. They had persuaded people smugglers to take them to Thailand or Malaysia, but they were abandoned by the people smugglers and left to drift at sea for weeks. They were starving and dying of thirst, yet the governments of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia forcibly pushed those boats back out into the ocean.
Australia was asked to help these people, but then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott famously said “Nope, nope, nope”. That is the lesson that Australia — a country that has signed the refugee convention — was selling to a region that traditionally has not respected refugee rights. It could have been an absolute tragedy.
But thousands of people were rescued and the amazing part was that they were rescued by Indonesian fisherfolk, who decided that they could not leave these people to die out at sea. They broke the impasse and rescued thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants.
These are stories of individual heroism in the face of governments that were turning their backs on vulnerable people.
Australia was not alone but it certainly could have done more. It is not providing the example we would hope for a country that has long held itself up as a beacon of human rights and human decency.
The disappointing thing about the refugee saga is that successive governments seem to have the same policies. Whether they are Labor or Liberal, they adopt the same line.
We also find it very disappointing. Last year Labor, having previously reintroduced detention on Nauru and Manus Island, at its convention agreed to adopt the turnback policy of the current government.
Last year, Amnesty investigated the case of a boat that was attempting to take asylum seekers attempting to get to NZ back to Indonesia. The boat was not even trying to get to Australia. But it was intercepted by Australian officials and the asylum seekers were put on boats provided by the Australian government. The crew were given $32,000 to persuade them to sail back to Indonesia. Abbott famously said: “By hook or by crook, we will adopt any measure to turn people around”.
Then one of the boats ran out of fuel and they had to all get on one small boat in the middle of the ocean. Then they ran ashore on an Indonesian island and had to be rescued.
So we can see Australia's policy is not about saving lives, but rather putting people's lives at risk. This is the policy Labor said it would copy. It is very disappointing in a country that should be leading in terms of rescuing defenceless refugees, not leading in world's worst practice towards people who are seeking protection.
The latest case is of baby Asha, who was in hospital in Brisbane and the medical staff refused to allow her to be discharged to the Nauru detention centre.
Again we are seeing ordinary people acting to help those in need. Like the Indonesian fisherfolk, ordinary citizens, when confronted with someone who needs help, are saying: “Yes we will provide help. We won't send a baby back to a situation where their health cannot be protected and they cannot be properly looked after”.
The High Court decision earlier this year was very disappointing because it gave the government the legal right to take people to Nauru and Manus Island. But there has been a backlash from doctors and lawyers and grandmothers and all sorts of ordinary Australians who have said, “No don't send them back”.
How does Amnesty International analyse the politics behind these policies, not just in Australia but in all the 160 nations you surveyed?>/strong>
It is very disappointing when there is a convention that says we should protect people who are fleeing violence and persecution and yet, time after time, governments put up barriers. Sovereignty trumps humanity every time. Unfortunately, we have seen in Australia that both sides of politics are playing to the lowest common denominator.
The US election is another instance where we have seen politicians making extraordinary statements, not only about people coming from Latin America to work in the US, but also about resettling Syrian refugees. The world's greatest refugee crisis in decades is happening, yet politicians in US are saying they don't want them and are trying to stop them from coming.
The US has historically played an important role in resettling refugees and for it to suddenly turn around and play this nasty game with some of the world's most vulnerable people is really quite sad.
The US sells an enormous amount of arms to people who are at war but they won't take responsibility for the results of that war. What is Amnesty International able to do in such situations? How do you put pressure on governments to change their ways?
We take a range of approaches. When governments have to give evidence at the UN at the Universal Periodic Review, we make sure we are there explaining the facts to ensure they cannot lie about what they are doing in terms of human rights. We try to raise awareness with the public, we meet politicians and we research.
I was in Indonesia last August to meet the Rohingya, who were rescued and those who were on the boat that was turned around, to see how they were treated and bring that information into the public domain.
We try to make sure the facts are out there and we try to put a human face to those facts to remind everyone that we are talking about people and hopefully through that we can change public opinion and political opinion.
There are reasons we have conventions. These are rights we all hold dear and that protect us all. But how do we remind people that they are worth defending? We have to make sure we have the facts right and then we just keep pushing and pushing.
Is there anything we can do to support you in this cause?
The #LetThemStay campaign is still going strong to stop people being sent back to Nauru. People can look at our website amnesty.org.au and get involved in that campaign. Make yourself aware of the facts. Have conversations with friends and family and remind people that Australia can do better. Don't be afraid to contact your local MP — they represent you so you have a right to talk to them and make your views known.