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Article 14: Right to political asylum in other countries

  • Although Australia has traditionally been generous to refugees, it is far less tolerant of asylum seekers who try to enter the country illegally.
  • The government detains all illegal-entry asylum seekers in five detention centres located throughout the country until it can process their asylum requests.
  • The government also has a detention camp of the remote island of Nauru. This camp has seen a number of protests - and, at Christmas 2003, more than 30 Afghan men detained there began a hunger protest, some sewing up their lips. They suspended their protest in January 2004 after Australia promised to review their cases.
  • Australia is keen to keep unwanted boat people out of the mainland. During the Christmas hunger strike, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said the Nauru asylum seekers were free to go home and eat any time they wanted.
  • Australia's asylum policies have been criticised by human rights groups, governments and the United Nations.

Tough Policy

Australia is a country that has traditionally been generous to refugees. Since 1945, it has given refuge to half a million people.

In recent years, however, Australia has developed some of the toughest policies in the world on asylum seekers who enter the country illegally, despite the fact that far less people attempt to claim asylum in Australia than in Europe and North America.

Australia assigns all illegal asylum seekers to one of six detention centres located throughout the country as a matter of official policy.

Once in the camps, the asylum seekers must wait indefinitely for their asylum requests to be processed by the government. Sometimes they wait as long as five years only to be refused.

Moreover, since August 2001, Prime Minister John Howard has ordered the country's naval forces to turn all illegal asylum seekers on boats away from Australian waters.

Those who refuse to turn back are shipped to detention camps on the poor Pacific islands of Nauru, Papua New Guinea and Kiribati where they wait for their asylum requests to be processed.

The Tampa Case

In August 2001, 433 asylum seekers on board a sinking Indonesian ferry were rescued by a Norwegian freighter, the MV Tampa. The asylum seekers, most of them from Afghanistan, had travelled thousands of miles to reach Australia.

Once on board the Tampa, the migrants spent days at sea while Norway argued with Australia and Indonesia about which country should take responsibility for their security.

The Australian authorities initially refused to let the refugee-laden Tampa enter Australian waters, but after a 10-day stand-off they were finally rescued by the Australian Navy and housed in a sports hall.

The 'Pacific Solution'

New Zealand received some of the asylum seekers, but the majority were transported by an Australian troop-ship HMAS Manoora to a detention camp on the Pacific island of Nauru.

It was later revealed that Australia paid Nauru $30 million to accept the asylum seekers.

The policy of shipping illegal asylum seekers to poor, remote Pacific islands is known in government circles as the 'Pacific Solution.'

Mr Ruddock has called it an effective way of deterring people from coming to Australia.

Global Criticism

Australia's decision to prevent illegal immigrants from entering its shores was received with unprecedented criticism from the international community.

A series of protests led by asylum seekers in several of the detention centres only served to further focus international attention on Australia's immigration policy.

After reports of riots, attempted suicides and mass hunger strikes in detention centres, the UN inspected the conditions of the centres. In June 2002, it released a report which stated that Australia was creating widespread depression among asylum seekers by holding them indefinitely.

The UN Human Rights Commission also reported that it was worried about the uncertain length of detainment and conditions of the detention camps and was certain that Australia had breached the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In October 2002, an independent government watchdog in Australia ordered immigration officials to justify their policy of detaining child asylum seekers.

The nation's Prime Minister, John Howard, has stood firm, claiming it is 'in Australia's national interest that we draw a line on what is increasingly becoming an uncontrollable number of illegal arrivals in this country.'