The Horrifying Treatment of Refugees in Australia Needs To End

Australia is often celebrated for its beautiful beaches and fun, laid back people, but this reputation overlooks a co-existing darker reality. The nation is actually one of the worst human rights violators in terms of its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. While Australia received just 1% of all applications made for asylum globally in 2014, according to the BBC, the country has still come under fire for the way it has chosen to handle these requests. In fact, this year the UN found that parts of Australia's asylum seeker policies violate the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Perhaps the act most obvious and well-known to Australians is Prime Minister Tony Abbott's campaign to sway public opinion about refugees. Abbott spent almost $23 million of taxpayers' money in a single year on a forceful, elaborate ad campaign that promoted anti-refugee policies and expressed the need for legal migration, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

But by far the nation's most egregious acts in regards to its treatment of refugees is its "turning back the boats" policy. Implemented in 2001, this policy requires the Australian Navy to force boats with refugees and asylum seekers on board to turn around, according to the same report. Given the fact that Australia is an island, and land-based migration is therefore impossible, this decision is truly negatively influential.

Those who manage to reach Australian shores without visas hardly fare better, though. When caught, they are held in offshore detention centers, which are notorious for abusing inmates. Sexual assault, for example, is present in these centers. One Somali woman held in an offshore detention center demonstrated this in a particularly high profile way: Her appeal to abort a pregnancy that resulted from a rape allegedly committed by a detention guard went viral, eventually forcing the government to fly her to Australia, presumably to receive the procedure she requested. But the young woman was ultimately returned to the detention center without receiving the abortion. Australian Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, claimed she decided against the abortion when consulted by the doctor but a photo of a handwritten note written by the woman in question, claiming that she never saw a doctor to help her make an informed decision and that she still wanted an abortion, was soon published online.

As if this abuse wasn't horrifying enough, a new piece of legislation —  the Border Force Act — was passed this year, effectively making conditions in these centers worse. Doctors and other workers at these centers can be punished with as many as two years in prison if they speak out about the conditions in the centers under this legislation, ABC reported in June.

Many have tried to raise awareness about and combat this issue. An article in the New York Times brought international attention to Australia’s treatment of migrants and caused uneasiness among many Australian citizens. United Nation's Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made a plea for Australia to change this system at the official review of the UN Human Rights Council and media-personality Waleed Aly brought public attention to the Australian Boarder Force Act by addressing it in a segment on one of the most watched television programs in Australia, The Project. Refugees have also protested these conditions by going on hunger strikes, sewing their lips together, and even attempting suicide in protest.

As an Australian and as a human, I cannot view remain complacent about these unacceptable conditions. These reports call Australia's commitment to upholding human rights for all people regardless of their circumstances into question. Innocent people simply seeking better lives are being detained, abused and treated like criminals. Australia must be held accountable for these actions and the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers altered immediately.

More articles by Category: Feminism, Immigration, International
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Equality, Reproductive rights, News, Discrimination



Eliza V
Sign up for our Newsletter

Learn more about topics like these by signing up for Women’s Media Center’s newsletter.