Lawyers, politicians, refugees and doctors who witnessed Australia’s offshore asylum policies and temporary visa regime play out tell May Bulman that the UK risks ‘international embarrassment’ if it pursues its new immigration proposals
Lawyers, former civil servants and doctors in Australia have told The Independent the UK risks undergoing “international embarrassment” if it goes ahead with its proposed “overhaul” of the asylum system, which will see the rights of thousands of asylum seekers reduced.
The UK home secretary Ms Patel announced in March that, under her proposed reforms, refugees who arrive in Britain via unauthorised routes will be denied the automatic right to asylum and instead be regularly reassessed for removal to safe countries they passed through.
People who cannot immediately be removed are to be offered a temporary status, up to 30 months, with abridged rights and benefits and limited family reunion rights.
Ms Patel also said she would amend the law so that it is possible to move asylum seekers from the UK while their asylum claim or appeal is pending – paving the way for offshore asylum processing. Media reports suggest Gibraltar, the Isle of Man and Rwanda are being considered.
The plans bear hallmarks to much-derided asylum laws in Australia introduced over the past decade.
A ‘national shame’
Australia’s offshore asylum policy first began in 2001, lasting several years, and was reintroduced by the Labor Party in 2013, when the then prime minister Kevin Rudd famously announced that asylum seekers arriving by boat without a visa would “never be settled in Australia”.
In the subsequent years, the country sent more than 4,000 people to state-sponsored immigration detention centres in the tiny Pacific state of Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
At least 10 have taken their lives while being held in Australia’s offshore processing centres. Two have been murdered, including a 23-year-old Iranian who died of head injuries after being hit by security guards following a riot in 2014 at the Papua New Guinea detention centre.
Dr Nick Martin, a former senior medical officer on Nauru, who spoke out publicly against Australia’s offshore immigration regime, said it was a “national shame”.
“The human cost is unbelievable. These people are often traumatised anyway, and then they’re then stuck in a prison environment that makes their trauma worse and worse,” he said.Top ArticlesREAD MORE
“It’s ruinously expensive because you need to keep people offshore and have staff out there. An insane amount of money has been thrown at it just to keep people out of sight. It has created a problem where there doesn’t need to be one.”
The human cost is unbelievable. These people are often traumatised anyway, and then they’re then stuck in a prison environment that makes their trauma worse and worse
Dr Nick Martin, former senior medical officer on Nauru
Australia has spent in the region of $12bn on offshore processing in the last eight years – considerably more than it was forecast to cost.
Addressing Ms Patel’s plans, Dr Martin said: “Australia has undergone international embarrassment for this. Does the UK really want to take on a policy that even most of the politicians in Australia are trying to move away from it now?”
Paul Stevenson, a traumatologist who has offered psychological support to both staff and refugees in Australia’s offshore detention centres, echoed these remarks.
He sent shockwaves through Australia when he disclosed that, in his decades working at the scenes of terrorist attacks, bombings and mass murders, he had never seen more atrocity than in Manus and Nauru.
The psychologist said Australia made a mistake in not having an “end plan” when introducing the reforms – prioritising efforts to “appease the electorate in the short-term” but without establishing an ultimate goal.
“If I could encourage the British government to do anything it would be to work right from the beginning towards a resolution. Find that first, know where you’re heading,” he added.
“If you can’t find that you know you’re going to be doomed if you start a process that you can’t finish.”
‘Slow and tortuous’
Up to three quarters of asylum seekers being held in Australia’s offshore camps were ultimately determined to be refugees, but the government denied them any prospect of resettlement to the country.
Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, human rights defender, writer and film producer, was detained on Manus Island from 2013 until the detention centre’s closure in 2017. He now has refugee status in New Zealand.
Describing the offshore regime as a “tragedy”, he said: “I don’t think the people of the UK want their government to create the same tragedy in their name. They have damaged hundreds of innocent people and also damaged the political culture in that country.”
The detention sites were closed in 2017 and 2018, but around 300 people remain offshore, temporarily resettled. Hundreds are in Australia after being evacuated for medical treatment, more than 750 have returned voluntarily to their home countries and 20 were forcibly deported. Some 900 have settled in a third country including 870 in the US. Thirteen former detainees are dead.
I don’t think the people of the UK want their government to create the same tragedy in their name. They have damaged hundreds of innocent people and also damaged the political culture in that country
Behrouz Boochani, detained on Manus Island for years
Abul Rizvi, who was a senior official in Australia’s Department of Immigration from the early 1990s to 2007, said the first phase of offshore processing, which took place while he was working for the government, was relatively successful, because nearly all individuals were processed within two years and settled in Australia.
But he said that when the policy was reintroduced in 2013, it was “much slower and much more tortuous”, largely due to the fact that the Australian government refused to take in any of those in the camps, instead leaving them in a state of limbo for years on end.
The former immigration official warned Britain risked a similar fate, saying: “The UK proposals still has too many holes. If you’re looking at this purely as stopping the asylum seekers and removing those who are unsuccessful, I’m not sure Patel has a solution. It’s half-baked.”
David Burke, a lawyer at Australia’s Human Rights Legal Centre, explained that throughout 2018, he and other lawyers were running court cases to get people who needed medical treatment not available in offshore detention transferred to the mainland.
“We had tens of children trying to kill themselves, but the government refusing to transfer people. Parents were sleeping in shifts because they couldn’t leave their child, aged under 10, alone,” he said.
In a development echoed by the UK government with Ms Patel’s use of the term “activist lawyers”, Mr Burke said that the legal representatives – as well as doctors supporting asylum seekers in the offshore camps – began to be “vilified” by the Australian government.
“The idea of any country looking to it as a model is honestly terrifying when you know the realities of what has happened in Australia,” he added.
Nick McKim, co-deputy leader for the Australian Green Party and a member of the Australian Senate, urged the UK to “learn from the mistakes” of his country and rule out using offshore processing, describing it as a “horror show”.
He added: “This is a really dark and bloody chapter in Australia’s national story, and one that I urge the UK not to write for itself. Learn from the horrors of offshore detention, where people’s lives have been destroyed.”
‘Taxpayer funded cruelty’
Another feature of Australia’s crackdown on boat arrivals was its introduction of Temporary Protection Visa (TPVs), introduced in 2013, a form of transient settlement issued to recognised refugees who arrived in the country by boat before the offshore system came into play.
TPV holders have the right to work, study and access some state benefits, but they are barred from accessing refugee family reunion mechanisms and can only travel overseas in compelling circumstances.
Like the UK’s proposals, Australia’s TPV policy requires refugees to have their cases periodically reviewed to assess whether they can be deported.
“The idea that you can treat protection as a three-year agreement to be reviewed is obviously an abhorrent concept for people who come here seeking safety, but it is also a bureaucratic nightmare for the government
David Burke, human rights lawyer
However, people granted TPVs in Australia are rarely removed from the country.
Mr Burke described the temporary visa policy as a “complete failure”, explaining that nine years on from its introduction, there were still thousands of people who haven’t even had an initial hearing for their protection claims yet.
“The idea that you can treat protection as a three-year agreement to be reviewed is obviously an abhorrent concept for people who come here seeking safety, but it is also a bureaucratic nightmare for the government,” he said.
Research by the University of New South Wales in 2019 found that refugees on Australian TPVs had significantly worse mental health than those on secure permanent visas, with half having a probable diagnosis of PTSD, compared to 30 per cent of permanent visa holders.
The findings also showed that people on temporary visas were 2.4 times more likely to report suicidal intent than permanent visa holders.
Sangeetha Pillai, senior research associate at the Kandor Centre, which studies refugee law, said people on TPVs in Australia were “effectively kept in limbo”, and urged the UK government and voters to “think about the human cost” of such a system.
Mr Rivzi, the former immigration official, described TPVs as “taxpayer-funded cruelty”, adding: “They don’t work. All they do is create suffering. They don’t slow the numbers coming, they don’t force people to go home. I can’t see what they have ever achieve other than suffering and costs.”
All options on the table
A Home Office spokesperson said it was “looking at what other countries do to deter illegal migration” and that it would “not rule out any option” that could help reduce the problem.
Earlier this week, media reports suggested the department was considering plans to create an offshore asylum processing centre in Rwanda. The department subsequently denied there was such a plan in place, but did not rule out the idea.
It has also been reported that Ms Patel is considering sending asylum seekers to processing centres in Gibraltar, the Isle of Man and islands off the Scottish coast.
Meanwhile, more than 1,500 asylum seekers in the UK have already been told this year that their claims will not be processed by the Home Office and that they will instead be considered for removal to European countries they travelled through.
But Britain currently has no mechanism to carry out these returns, and of EU countries – including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden – have told The Independent do not intend to make bilateral deals with Britain.
It is presumed these asylum seekers, even if they are deemed to be refugees, will be granted Ms Patel’s new form of temporary protection visa if the UK is unable to remove them from the country.
The Home Office spokesperson said its new immigration plans would “welcome people through safe and legal routes, while preventing abuse of the system and the criminality associated with it”, adding: “Our asylum system is broken and we cannot sit idly by while people die attempting to cross the Channel.”
The Australian government had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.