The government’s Rwanda program is an attempt to mirror Australia’s immigration policies, which have had disastrous consequences.
In his speech announcing the UK scheme, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his aim was to stop “vile smugglers” by breaking their business model and preventing a “water graveyard” in the canal. He also used the word “illegal” thirteen times to describe asylum seekers arriving by boat, versus unspecified “safe and legal routes”.
This language reveals that the government is trying to dehumanize and delegitimize refugees, calling arrivals by boat “illegal” and using the threat of deportation to deter asylum seekers.
This rhetoric has been seen before.
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In Australia, the government has taken the same approach with disastrous consequences for human life and the country’s international reputation.
Australia’s policy for a decade has been to deny asylum claims from people arriving by boat, instead towing them to their country of origin, seeking resettlement deals with regional partners or sending vulnerable people to detention abroad.
In a move similar to current UK policy in Rwanda, the Gillard government in Australia struck a deal in 2011 to forcibly resettle 800 asylum seekers held in immigration detention in exchange for 4,000 refugees awaiting resettlement. in Malaysia.
It was an attempt to steer growing numbers away from overseas detention at a time of higher migration flows.
The Australian policy was heavily criticized at the time by human rights advocates, who rightly pointed out that people seeking asylum in Malaysia did not enjoy the legal right to live and work, putting their well-being at risk.
Like the UK’s policy in Rwanda, the “Malaysian solution” quickly ran into legal problems, with the High Court of Australia ruling that the policy was illegal because resettlers were not offered no protection against further prosecution by the Malaysian government.
The Rudd government in Australia then introduced a new policy in 2013 stating that no asylum seekers who arrived by boat and who turned out to be refugees would be resettled in Australia, defining them as “illegal arrivals”.
Prime Minister Rudd has invoked the mantra of breaking the smugglers’ business model to save lives at sea as justification for policies that are illegal under international law.
Since 2014, the following Australian governments have moved from overseas detention to forcibly returning people arriving by boat to their home country. This often happens in secret circumstances under the guise of “on water issues”.
Apart from winning votes from a traditionally conservative voting public at home, Australia’s policies have been a disaster in human and diplomatic terms.
First and foremost, men, women and children suffered immense suffering. Since 2012, 18 people have died in detention, including six by suicide, at least one murdered and two from pathologies for lack of adequate treatment.
Many have suffered serious mental health problems due to prolonged and indefinite detention in harsh conditions and exposure to violence and abuse. The constant threat of resettlement to countries with poor human rights records has also resulted in poor mental health outcomes for those detained.
The situation has become so serious that in 2019 the Australian government was forced to medically evacuate all those detained on Nauru and Manus Island to the mainland.
Second, Australia’s policy of indefinite detention and its desire to seek resettlement agreements with its neighbors has led to a deterioration in relations with regional partners and the international community.
Through these policies, Australia violated its promises and obligations under international law, including ratification of international human rights treaties and the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. This led the UN human rights commissioner to publicly criticize Australia’s policies in 2019.
Australia’s relations with Indonesia and Papua New Guinea have also deteriorated.
Tensions rose after boats were turned around by the Royal Australian Navy, leading to an increase in the number of asylum seekers stranded in Indonesia. Additionally, in 2014, Papua New Guineans on Manus Island protested the detention center and Australia’s attempts to resettle refugees on the island, causing unrest.
Above all, the Australian approach has not deterred smugglers or stopped boat arrivals.
Even after indefinite detention and denial of resettlement became official government policy, there was no noticeable change in the number of boats arriving in Australian waters until 2016.
The British government would do well to understand that migration flows are driven by international events, not domestic politics. The increase in boat arrivals to Australia a decade ago was largely the result of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan which led to mass displacement.
If the UK is to be seen as a responsible global citizen, it must uphold its obligations under international law. It starts with establishing timely refugee processing pathways for all people seeking asylum, regardless of how they arrive.
Like Australia, the UK has a proud history of sheltering people in need, but both countries have gone astray.
Australia’s draconian asylum policy has failed, leading only to human suffering and alienation for Australia on the world stage.
Just like in Australia, the UK scheme is playing with the lives of vulnerable people, breaching international law obligations and threatening to diminish the UK’s standing overseas.
For these reasons, the scheme should be abandoned.