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Australia Maintains Detention Policy For Boat-Traveling Refugees


Last year, millions of people fled violence and persecution in Asia and the Middle East. We've heard a lot about how Europe is struggling to integrate these large numbers. But that is not a problem in Australia because Australia is one of only a few countries in the world that does not take in asylum seekers arriving by boat. Refugees are sent to remote islands in the South Pacific, where they are held indefinitely. Medical staff that have visited the facilities have said conditions are appalling. Human Rights groups report rampant violence and sexual abuse, including of children. Earlier, I spoke to Matt Siegel. He's a senior correspondent for Reuters in Australia, and he covers immigration. I asked him to describe the conditions in those centers.

MATT SIEGEL: People live on Manus Island in Papua, New Guinea in camps. It's extremely hot. There's no air conditioning. They live often in tents. It's difficult in terms of the confinement, but I think the real concern for people are the conditions, psychologically, that people go through in terms of being indefinitely detained. Some of these people have been in these camps for three, four, five years, and that leads to an enormous level of self-harm, suicide attempts, especially among - and most disturbingly, amongst children and young children.

MARTIN: And are - when they're sitting there waiting in detention, what are they waiting for? Are they - is there a hope that they would be allowed into Australia?

SIEGEL: Well, under a policy introduced by former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd before the last election, no person, no asylum seeker who attempts to reach Australia by boat can ever be resettled in Australia, even if they are found to be a genuine refugee.

MARTIN: I understand that on Wednesday, Australia's High Court threw out a legal challenge to these centers.

SIEGEL: Yeah. So on Wednesday, the Australian High Court threw out a challenge to Australia's ability to operate and fund offshore detention centers like the one in Nauru. And the result of that decision, which was expected, was that 267 asylum-seekers, including 37 infants who were born in Australia to refugee mothers who were flown here to give birth, will need to go back to Nauru. It effectively upheld the legality of the Nauru detention center, of offshore detention.

MARTIN: What do Australians think about this? Is it something that people are animated by? Is it debated?

SIEGEL: All of the most recent polls that I've seen, which come from late 2015, suggest that about 70-plus percent of the Australian population supports this policy. The decision did spark protests. There is a vocal minority of Australians, including church leaders who offered sanctuary in their churches to these asylum-seekers. But it is a minority of people, and I think that just like in the United States, where there is a segment of the population that is very animated by the idea of people flooding across unsecure borders - Australia is all unsecured borders. It's an island nation. So you can see how politicians who are attempting to use this issue for their own political gain might see this as a fertile ground, I suppose.

MARTIN: Australia's prime minister, current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, says this is actually a policy that saves lives by discouraging smugglers. Does it make people safer? Or at least, that's the argument that they're putting out there.

SIEGEL: Yeah. So both sides of politics actually support this policy and its goal - stated goal, which is to protect the lives of asylum-seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat. The argument is that by stopping the boats, they've made a humanitarian decision to protect the lives of asylum-seekers. But the end result is that they end up in a sort of limbo on these island detention centers.

MARTIN: Because it clearly hasn't been a deterrent for everyone.

SIEGEL: Not for everyone. Although to the government's credit, the number of boats that have been even attempting this journey have dropped off dramatically. Really, essentially stopped entirely.

MARTIN: Matt Siegel is a senior correspondent for Reuters in Sydney. Thanks so much for talking with us about this.

SIEGEL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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