State of the Nation 2017: Refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia – RCOA


The world is in the midst of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Yet Australia’s approach in recent years has been to punish people seeking asylum, while increasing the numbers of refugees it resettles. This contrasting approach threatens the long and proud history Australia has of successful integration of refugee communities.

This report reflects what we have heard from refugees and people seeking asylum, and the people supporting them. We thank all of the people who contributed to this report.

The past two years have been a dramatic and traumatic period for refugees, both at home and abroad. More people are seeking safety – from persecution, conflict, violence and violations of human rights – than at any time since World War II. In the past two years, we have seen lifeless children washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. We have seen ordinary Europeans lining up to help refugees at train stations. We have seen Australians demanding successfully that their leaders let in an extra 12,000 people fleeing the crises in Syria and Iraq. We have seen Canada open its arms to tens of thousands of people fleeing Syria and Iraq through its #WelcomeCanada program. In New York, we saw the world recommit to the principles of refugee protection and offer more places for protection, in two landmark international summits.

We also saw Hungary building a barbed wire fence along its border and holding a referendum to make sure refugees were not sent there. We saw country after country in Europe shutting their doors on refugees, and Europe sign up to a deal with Turkey to stop the displaced coming. We saw, and are still seeing, far-right parties rising on the back of hostile sentiment against both migrants and refugees. We have watched as Pauline Hanson was elected to the Senate promising an end to Muslim migration and as Donald Trump was elected promising not to let in any Syrians.

Back home, we have heard about – but have been largely prevented from seeing – the suffering of those we have sent to Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Thousands are still there, more than three years after we started ‘processing’ them and several months after the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled the detention centre on Manus Island was unconstitutional. While we welcomed the news in November 2016 that the US would resettle some of those stuck in limbo, their fate remains unclear.

We have also been left in the dark about the fate of the boats that the Australian Government has pushed back to sea. While the Australian Government claims it is saving lives, the truth is we are returning people to danger, or forcing people through even more dangerous passages.

On our shores, about 30,000 people seeking safety within Australia found themselves up against new barriers. One of these was the introduction of a fundamentally unfair and discriminatory way of determining their refugee claims, for most without any access to legal advice. Once again, those seeking safety in Australia were told that they would now always live in limbo, limiting the hope of ever reuniting with their families, and denied the chance to truly call Australia home. These vulnerable people face a future living in the margins, unable to access further education and vulnerable to exploitation. Others who had found safety in Australia were unable to become citizens, as the Australian Government dragged their feet in deciding their citizenship applications, as the Federal Court found in a case brought with the support of the Refugee Council in December 2016.

Some things that were already bad got worse. For many refugees in Australia it became even harder to reunite with loved ones overseas and for some people who came more recently, it has now become impossible. While we welcomed the release of most children and families from detention and the closure of several detention centres, those kept locked up continued to be incarcerated for increasing lengths of time in increasingly difficult conditions. Their access to the outside world — to visitors, friends and families, and even to mobile phones — became more restricted. With a change in the law, more people are now locked up more easily through the cancellation of visas, creating a new class of people in indefinite detention. For those in the community whose claims are increasingly being rejected in the new unfair system, they are being left to destitution and exploitation.

By contrast, Australia agreed to take in an extra 12,000 people displaced by the conflict in Syria and Iraq. The resettlement of people from Syria and Iraq was welcome, although the unnecessarily drawn out process prolonged the opportunity to build new lives. Similarly, while the release of most children from detention in Australia was welcome, far too many children are still suffering on Nauru. Several State governments have shown leadership, offering new travel concessions and increased access to school and further education. Universities have also shown the way by providing scholarships for refugees and people seeking asylum.

SOURCE: Refugee Council of Australia. “State of the Nation 2017: Refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia.” RCOA, 22 February 2017

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