Earlier this month a team of Australian lawyers, former civil servants and doctors warned Priti Patel not to follow the Australian approach to refugees. As Green Party colleagues from across the hemisphere, we could not agree more. Priti Patel’s New Plan for Immigration imports all the worst parts of Australian government policy. It must be resisted.
Australia has long stood out as an outlier in how it handles asylum seekers. For much of this and the last century, Australian governments have stoked international outrage and condemnation. Government policy has left refugees in deplorable situations and damaged Australia’s international standing.
In 1975, Australia was at least relatively enthusiastic about welcoming Vietnamese refugees. In the face of the fall of Saigon, Australia welcomed thousands, and saving refugee children had cross-party support.
In the 1990s, the response to Cambodian refugees was very different. Despite fleeing years of war, famine and genocide they did not receive a warm welcome. The Labor government of the time introduced mandatory detention. Under mandatory detention, anyone without a visa is held in a detention facility. The policy was meant to be temporary. However, it remains in effect today, with countless refugees having faced appalling conditions and detention for far longer than is humane or necessary. There are countless cases of refugees facing imprisonment for many years, for some of whom there is still no end in sight.
The Australian government has become infamous for offering developing countries millions of dollars if they agree to detain refugees, with Nauru and Papua New Guinea hosting many thousands, known as the so-called “Pacific Solution”. It is these agreements that have attracted the most criticism, and they are exactly what Priti Patel appears to be replicating.
Amnesty International has repeatedly condemned this ‘solution’ over the last two decades, labelling the Pacific Solution as “offending human dignity”. Both Nauru and Papua New Guinea have struggled to guarantee refugees basic living standards, never mind managing the complex needs of refugees fleeing violence and trauma.
They’ve faced tents for accommodation, sweltering temperatures, flooding, filthy conditions and restricted access to showers. Whistleblowers have called conditions “demoralising”, “desperate” and an “atrocity”. They’ve exposed the scale of trauma, self harm, suicide attempts, abuse and widespread despair. 13 people have lost their lives, including some through self harm and medical neglect.
What must be understood about offshore detention is that it is underpinned by a rationale of deterrence. Conditions in these camps must be worse than the conditions that people are fleeing. People seeking asylum are fleeing war and persecution and do so out of desperation. To try to scare them into staying in danger is unconscionable.
And this is what offshore processing looks like. Human misery on new levels. There’s no reason to believe the UK can magically manage this differently. We only need to look at the conditions in Napier Barracks and Yarl’s Wood to realise that we will inflict the same suffering, merely under a Union Jack.
The UK seems to be acting in tandem with Denmark, which recently passed new laws resembling Priti Patel’s New Plan for Immigration. This is of course Denmark, which began confiscating jewellery and money from newly arrived refugees. Both countries look like they are planning to hold refugees in camps in Rwanda.
There are huge moral concerns over these plans. From the imbalance of power to the considerable concerns over Rwanda’s record on human rights, arbitrary detentions and its faltering democracy. Never mind that Rwanda already is supporting many refugees from Burundi and the Democratic Republic in Congo, and that a similar but secretive deal with Israel collapsed.
In Australia, the policy has been an abject failure, even on its own terms. There are still dangerous boat journeys across the Pacific. It has cost more than $10 billion. There has been no resettlement of hundreds of people who have been detained for years.
These proposals represent a long standing tradition of both of our respective conservative parties to shirk their moral obligations. Many refugees are driven out of their homes because of push factors driven by Global North democracies, from the impact of the climate emergency to foreign wars. The governments of Australia and the UK have caused much global displacement, but both tie themselves in knots trying to avoid dealing with the consequences.
There are alternatives. We remember that moment in time where Angela Merkel opened doors to Syrian refugees in a way that few other major democracies would. The lasting legacy is increasingly well documented and the positive impact of that decision is clear. The UK and Australia face far fewer numbers of people than the Syrian Refugee Crisis ever was. The opportunity for both our governments to follow the moral clarity of Germany is still there.
It’s time to deliver on our obligations under international law. It’s time to give refugees safe and legal routes to claim asylum. It’s time to end the arbitrary and cruel detention of people in need. We cannot offshore our obligations to nations in the Global South. Those should be the core principles of Priti Patel’s “new plan”.
Senator Nick McKim is the Australian Greens’ spokesperson for Immigration and Citizenship. Follow him on Twitter.
Benali Hamdache is the Green Party of England and Wales spokesperson for Migration and Refugee Support. Follow him on Twitter.