Amnesty slams Australia’s smuggling ‘solution’

Lloyd Jones – AAP

5 minute read

Australia's boat turnback and offshore detention policies are only fuelling the people smugglers' business model, Amnesty International says.

LONDON: Australia's policy of turning back boatloads of refugees and outsourcing their detention to Pacific Island camps sets a bad example globally and only fuels people smuggling, Amnesty International says.

Salil Shetty, the rights group's secretary-general, says Australia's policies on maritime asylum seekers are "flagrantly violating" international refugee and human rights conventions.

He says Canberra's focus on people smugglers is a "red herring" when it should be looking at the plight of asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution.

"No matter how high the walls or how well-armed the coastguards, people who have nothing to lose will find a way to escape unbearable situations – even if it means risking their lives in dangerous journeys," Shetty tells AAP.

Australia's boat turnback and offshore detention policies do not solve that core problem, instead ensuring a constant supply of asylum seekers for people smugglers, he says.

And there's evidence Australia has abetted people smuggling by paying boat crews to turn back to Indonesia, Shetty says.

Amnesty is very concerned that Australia's policies are being examined with interest by European and other nations facing an influx of refugees.

"The real issue is that these countries are not offering a safe and legal route. So effectively they're fuelling the people smugglers' business model."

Providing safe routes across borders would alleviate the global refugee crisis and reduce the incidence of people smuggling, Shetty says.

He points out nations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, who have taken in refugees for decades, are now looking at how rich Western nations, including Australia, are pushing back refugees to deny them access.

That makes them ask whether they should continue to bear the burden of hosting millions of refugees.

"It is true that because of people smugglers, people have died in dangerous waters," Shetty says, noting that vulnerable people are charged extortionate prices for passage on unsafe boats.

He cites the European migrant crisis in which thousands of people have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.

Shetty also highlights the plight of the Rohingya people fleeing persecution in Myanmar.

"Do we know how many Rohingyas have died in the Andaman Sea because the Australian and other governments are refusing to receive them?"

He notes that the Australian government describes its policies as successfully stopping the boats.

"One of the richest countries in the world is telling us that they have successfully violated the rights of some of the poorest people in the world. Is that how we define success these days?"

Shetty also takes issue with Australia's offshore model under which asylum seekers are denied any chance of staying in Australia and are sent to detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

"It's what I call the outsourcing of responsibility."

The policy traps thousands of people in appalling living conditions with nowhere else to go while access is blocked to outside inspection by "one of the so-called most democratic open countries in the world".

Shetty says Australia's policies have affected its global reputation, with neighbouring countries such as Indonesia wondering how Canberra can lecture others on human rights when its own record is now tarnished.

"So the kind of standing and legitimacy to finger wag on the world stage about human rights is deeply eroded, and rightly so."

Amnesty has compiled a report on a May 2015 incident in which it's alleged Australian navy and border force officials turned a boat back to Indonesia, with the crew paid $US32,000 (about 28,700 euro) to comply.

It noted such a payment would constitute a criminal act under Australian and Indonesian law. The Australian government has refused to confirm or deny a payment was made.

Shetty says it's an instance in which Australian authorities "effectively supported people smuggling", but Canberra has refused to investigate.

He says part of the entire problem lies with how refugees are portrayed by governments.

"Politicians, across parties, are simply telling lies to their populations - the idea that refugees are terrorists.

"It's completely fallacious. When people are fleeing from Syria, from Islamic State and radical extremists, taking such huge risks, if you push them back to those countries, what exactly is the impact of that? You are radicalising them."

If Western nations fail to take a more humanitarian stance on refugees, they risk more radicalisation and more acts of terror.

Shetty says wars are obvious drivers of refugees and the early signs of wars are always human rights violations, as in the Syrian conflict.

But the international community has failed to address such violations and prevent wars, he says, with the UN Security Council playing politics and vetoing resolutions that don't serve an individual permanent member's interests.

The so-called refugee crisis became a global crisis as soon as people started coming to Europe.

"The Africans are used to having refugees for decades, it was not seen as a global crisis. But as soon as it affects the rich countries it becomes a global crisis," Shetty notes.

But Amnesty lives in hope, Shetty says, and has a new global campaign called "I Welcome Refugees".

"We're going to keep the pressure up."