Ratcheting up a harsh anti-refugee policy that has been the status quo for Australian governments for over a decade, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced Sunday that he is introducing a bill to Parliament this week that would ban any refugees or asylum seekers who have arrived by boat from ever entering the country again—including those who have returned to their home countries or moved elsewhere.
“This is a battle of will between the Australian people, represented by their government, and these criminal gangs of people smugglers. You should not under estimate the scale of the threat,” Turnbull said.
The new policy would include some 1,233 people who are currently in offshore detention centers on the small Pacific islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea, which the Australian government pays to house refugees who attempt to claim asylum in Australia after arriving by boat. This practice has been condemned by human rights and activist organizations since it was first implemented in 2001 by Prime Minister John Howard (he’s the one usually portrayed fondly by the American media as he successfully implemented Australia’s gun control system).
When a Norwegian freighter carrying refugees from Afghanistan it had rescued in international waters attempted to dock in Australia—after the refugees demanded to be taken to a Western country, as opposed to Indonesia, which had the closest suitable port to give the refugees medical attention—it was boarded by Australian Special Forces, launching a diplomatic spat between Australia and Norway. Howard swiftly introduced legislation to Parliament establishing a “Pacific Solution,” which declared all asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boat from Indonesia would be intercepted and placed in offshore detention centers.
The policy ended briefly after Howard left office in 2007, which prompted a celebratory statement from the the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR). That was to be short-lived, however; within a few years, Australian governments have continued to find new (or return to the same) ways of housing refugees in offshore prison camps. In 2013, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd introduced his familiar-sounding “PNG Solution,” which decreed that no asylum seekers who arrive by boat, regardless of country of origin, would ever be settled in Australia–but rather housed on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
Since then, reports from the detention centers on Manus and nearby Nauru, which is its own nation, have been horrific. The refugees—men, women, and children—suffer “severe abuse, inhumane treatment, and neglect,” according to an Amnesty International/Human Rights Watch report published in August. “Driving adult and even child refugees to the breaking point with sustained abuse appears to be one of Australia’s aims on Nauru,” HRW researcher Michael Bochenek said.
That report echoes many that have come before it, from as disparate sources as the Australian Human Rights Commission, an independent government organization that found children who had been interned at Nauru suffer from severe mental health problems brought about by their detention; the UNHCR, which called the detention situations “immensely harmful” and “completely untenable”; and an independent review commissioned by the government that found that women have been raped and otherwise sexually harassed by guards in exchange for access to showers.
About those guards—according to Melbourne newspaper The Age, the Australian government secretly funds Papua New Guinea’s “most thuggish paramilitary unit” to secure the Manus Island detention center. That unit has been credibly accused of rape, murder, and regular human rights abuses.
In 2013, when the incredibly conservative Tony Abbott was elected prime minister, the government unveiled an incredibly harsh campaign to end arrivals of refugees, which had spiked in recent years. “Operation Sovereign Borders,” led by the motto “Stop the Boats,” resulted in a massive increase in the population of immigrant detention centers, leading to the overcrowding crisis in many of the prisons. The campaign was accompanied by terrifying ads designed to scare would-be asylum seekers from even thinking about trying to make it to Australia.
As ever, Turnbull’s new proposal has earned the swift condemnation of human rights groups and refugee advocates. It seems incredibly unlikely their concerns will be considered.