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The High Cost of Cruelty: Australia’s Refugee Policy

By: Sam Thomas

The UK looks towards Australia’s cruel and costly refugee policy. It shouldn’t.

In October, leaked documents revealed that the United Kingdom’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, had asked officials to explore the creation of off-shore centres to process asylum seekers. A number of sites were proposed for such centres including Ascension Island and St Helena (overseas British territories). Both sites are thousands of miles from the UK and in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. After the leaks, officials claimed this was merely a “brainstorming” exercise inspired by Australia’s practice of off-shore processing facilities.

The British Conservative Party has long been inspired by the Australian immigration system, and throughout the ongoing Brexit saga has often touted the “Australian-style points system” as an ideal option post-Brexit. However, the mere possibility of replicating Australia’s refugee policy should be considered as alarming.

If you think the idea of flying asylum seekers thousands of miles to be processed before flying them back into the UK is a bad idea, you are in the minority. YouGov asked 2,109 British adults if they would support “building a place where asylum seekers stay while claims are processed on Ascension Island”. 40% of respondents said this was a good idea, 35% said it was a bad idea, and 25% didn’t know. Building an off-shore processing centre was supported by clear majorities amongst Leave voters (60%) and Conservatives (62%). Yet the body of evidence from Australia suggests this is a terrible idea with huge human and financial costs.

The ‘Pacific Solution’

In August 2012, the Australian government announced that it would begin sending asylum seekers to Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea while their claims were being processed (so they would be processed ‘off-shore’ as opposed to ‘on-shore’ in Australia directly). However, even if their claims are approved (i.e they have been granted refugee status) they are unable to be settled in Australia directly. This is breathtakingly cruel. The result is that asylum seekers whom Australian officials have determined are refugees with legitimate reasons to flee their country of origin become stranded on these islands, unable to actually move to Australia. The law stipulates that they must be resettled “elsewhere”, although where exactly has never been determined.

This highly restrictive policy exists despite the tiny number of refugee claimants involved. Since July 19th, 2013, just 3,127 people have been taken to these offshore facilities. Those whose claims were rejected have since been returned to their home countries but, as of the end of 2017, 74% of claims had actually been successful. The fate of these refugees has been shocking. Many (including hundreds of children) were stuck on the islands for years, and some still are. Over one thousand have been transferred to Australia for medical emergencies, but are still considered ‘transitory persons’ with no right to stay in Australia once treatment has ended. Indeed, Australia has relied on other countries taking in these refugees, as it has refused to do so itself. Currently over 400 people remain on the islands, over 70% of whom are legally recognised as refugees.

‘I feel like I am being held hostage, and for no reason’ - Arash Shirmohamadi, an Iranian refugee on Nauru

The physical and mental impact for the refugees trapped on these two islands for years has been staggering. In 2016, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) medical experts found cumulative rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD amongst these refugees to be the highest recorded in the medical literature to date at over 80%. Médecins Sans Frontiers, who worked in Nauru for 11 months reports similarly shocking findings. Two-thirds of their patients had had suicidal thoughts, and one third had actually attempted suicide. Children as young as nine were found to have tried to kill themselves by swallowing razor blades and stones, trying to overdose, hanging themselves, and jumping off high places. Sexual abuse of refugees has also been recorded, with women sexually assaulted and raped by officials.

The Cost of Cruelty is High

It turns out that maintaining these appalling conditions is expensive. Since 2012, the Australian government has spent $7.618 billion on these centres, and this is very likely an underestimate. This equates to $2.44 million per person. The Refugee Council of Australia estimates that the cost of processing an asylum seeker who is allowed to integrate into a community is just over 10,000 dollars annually. Even community detention would be just 103,000 dollars annually.

In other words, the Australian government is willing to waste billions of taxpayers’ money to keep a small number of legitimate refugees outside of Australia, and in inhumane conditions that some have likened to ‘torture’.

Not An Example To Follow

Australia has essentially used off-shore processing centres to engineer its own humanitarian crisis, and all for just 3,000 people. Are we seriously to believe the government is incapable of integrating this number of people across the country? It has been an expensive, morally bankrupt experiment in how to deter asylum seekers.

All this is to say that following Australia’s example is a very bad idea. The cost of a similar program to the UK would scarcely be less, especially considering the cost of flying asylum seekers thousands of miles each way. Moreover, unless the UK intends to follow Australia’s example of trapping refugees in small islands indefinitely, then we should be working to integrate these people into our society from the start. Britain’s flirtation with the Australian model is generated by a modest uptick in asylum seekers crossing the channel but again the numbers of people involved are small. Off-shore processing centres are not the answer. They are, in pretty much every respect, an abject failure.

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