For years the federal budget has been brutal on refugees and asylum seekers. Each year for the past two decades, visa places have been cut or made more difficult to gain, and services and rights to appeal are cut. The rights of people seeking protection in Australia are slowly eroded while detention centres get bigger and bigger budgets.
Now, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey have revealed a budget that takes the war on refugees to new heights — with a newly merged border control agency, more patrol boats and the axing of independent oversight of refugee processing.
They claim that their “Operation Sovereign Borders” has been so successful at “stopping the boats” it is now “saving the budget” — by a projected $2.5 billion over five years.
But although everything from welfare, dental and foreign aid to science, clean energy and Aboriginal programs faced harsh cuts — the Coalition government plans to spend $2.9 billion in 2014-15 and $2.4 billion in 2015-16 on what it calls “illegal maritime arrivals asylum seeker management”. It also projects to spend $1.7 billion in 2016-17 and $1.3 billion in 2017-18.
That's more than $8.3 billion over the next four years to lock up refugees and turn back boats.
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Following a recommendation from the Commission of Audit, from July 1 next year, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (changed from the department of immigration and citizenship when Scott Morrison became immigration minister) and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service will be merged to make up a new agency called Australian Border Force.
The change will cost $480.5 million — and probably 480 jobs. The Coalition will fork out $98.9 million for a new “Strategic Border Command” and six new patrol vessels to patrol remote areas. A National Border Targeting Centre will receive $256.6 million for new profiling and targeting technology. A Border Force training college and workforce measures will receive about $53.6 million.
Morrison said Border Force would “pick up where Operation Sovereign Borders leaves off”. So that would mean forcing refugees into bulbous orange lifeboats stripped of safety equipment and abandoning them off the Indonesian coast and colluding with the navy to abuse asylum seekers in its care.
Morrison said: “The creation of an Australian Border Force will ensure a strategic, focused approach to letting in legitimate travellers we want and need to come to our country, while keeping out those who would do us harm.”
Those people who would “do us harm” are mostly traumatised young men, families, unaccompanied minors and desperate, displaced people who are exercising their legally recognised right to ask Australia for protection.
They will now face a system that will deny: the right to have their case independently reviewed; access to family reunions; and access to the Immigration Application Advice and Assistance scheme. The Displaced Persons Program has been axed. The Migration Review Tribunal, Refugee Review Tribunal, and the Social Security Appeals Tribunal will also be merged into a single tribunal, which will worsen decision-making procedures for refugees.
The Coalition has also cut 4000 onshore refugee visas for the financial year.
Nine onshore detention centres, including two in Darwin, the Curtin detention centre, several “alternative places of detention” and two compounds on Christmas Island are also being closed as the government expands its offshore detention camps. Private detention firm Transfield will continue to receive its lucrative contracts to run the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres.
Indonesia will also receive $86.8 million over three years to fund the interception and detention of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia. Malaysia will be given two retired boats next year to “combat people smuggling”.
Defence spending will also rise. More than $1.5 billion is being fast-tracked for new hardware and it is likely a big part of defence's resources will continue to back the navy's participation in obstructing asylum boats.
The budget promises pain for big sections of Australia, while refugees and asylum seekers continue to receive the harshest treatment while being made into scapegoats in the “national interest”.
The suffering continues on Manus Island, where almost 90 days has passed since Reza Berati was murdered inside the camp and more than 60 refugees were injured. The Refugee Action Coalition reported, on the day of the budget, that: “For the third time in two weeks, there has been an attempted suicide by Manus Island asylum seekers trying to drown themselves ...
“A man believed to be an African asylum seeker ran into the sea about 1pm Manus Island time [on May 13]. He was apparently rescued by Wilson security guards … Two Lebanese asylum seekers also tried to drown themselves on 28 April.”
Detainees are being subject to “almost daily” threats, as “groups of locals gather at the fences to make throat-cutting or shooting gestures” and Transfield tries to re-introduce PNG workers involved in the February 17 violence to the detention centre.
A case is under way in the Australian High Court to challenge the constitutionality of the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres.