Hungary has been in international headlines for months over the government’s hardline policy on migrants, but is not alone in rejecting asylum seekers. On the opposite side of the globe is a country on top of the human development index, with utopian unemployment rates and economic stability. And Australia also has a similar track record on the processing of asylum seekers.
Australia has been consistently slammed by the United Nations and civil society for refusing resettlement in the country for any migrants arriving by sea. By “stopping the boats” its government has been accused of dumping their refugees on its poorer neighbours, for pushing migrant boats back to sea and for processing asylum claims in scarce conditions on neighbouring Nauru and Manus Island, a part of Papua New Guinea. In April its government offered advice to the European Union – despite criticism at home and abroad.
“Australia has neither the legal or moral standing to be giving advice to European countries on how to deal with refugees,” says Australian and Director of Amnesty International Tirana Hassan. “Countries following Australia’s lead are merely engaging in a race to the bottom.” Hassan thinks the EU should look elsewhere for advice on how to tackle the largest migration influx since the Second World War.
Early last year Tony Abbott, Australia’s then-prime minister, urged Europe to adopt “very strong” policies. In order to stop the deaths, the EU must follow Australia’s example and “stop the boats”, he argued. The Foreign Affairs Minister, Julie Bishop, was forced to correct his statement by stressing that Europe is seeing a “crisis” of different geography and scale.
“We believe that the approach that we have taken has worked for us,” she was quoted as saying in national newspaper The Australian.
Bishop also boasted of values shared by Australia and the EU, using as examples the sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Ukraine and for welcoming the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear capabilities.
Australia remains an important example of “border control” to countries rejecting refugee quotas set by the EU, Bishop believes. She has championed Australia’s policies for dismantling the region’s people smugglers trade and said 2014 had seen “no deaths at sea as a result”.
Amnesty International’s Hassan says: “Australia has been the focus of massive international criticism for its treatment of refugees. It has systematically violated its obligations under international law by sending refugees back to countries where they are at risk, turning back asylum seekers and keeping them locked up in Pacific island detention facilities for years.”
She receives support from Australia’s own Human Rights Commission. A report titled “The Forgotten Children” accuses Australia’s offshore processing program for “having profoundly negative impacts on the mental and emotional health and development of children”. The report calls the mandatory detention of children on Nauru and Manus Island a “clear violation of international human rights law”.
The report also says the detention of children along with adults with high rates of mental health disorders is dangerous, and warns against “profoundly negative impacts on the mental and emotional health and development of children”.
The list of accusations goes on. “This year Amnesty International found that Australian officials paid traffickers to turn around boats with refugees on board to prevent them from reaching Australian territory,” Hassan sasy. “This would make Australian officials complicit in unlawful acts.”
Incidents such as these lead to harsh words from countries such as Turkey, India and almost comically North Korea in the UN’s Periodical Review, a process where countries review each others’ human rights records and put forward recommendations that countries can choose to implement. The process takes place every four and a half years.
To be fair, the Periodical Review is known to be full of contradictions, as for example Saudi Arabia’s criticism of Norway. However, the scale of criticism towards a country in line for a seat at the UN’s Human Rights Council was undeniably awkward as more than 100 countries lined up to slam Australia over its policies in this year’s Periodical Review.
Sweden for example noted that Australia is unique in its offshore processing program. Russia argued that there had been little progress since Australia’s last review in 2011, citing an implementation rate of only ten per cent.
Abbott responded by saying “Australians are sick of being lectured to by the United Nations”. His Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, described previous findings by the UN as “absolute rubbish”.
In September his government arguably made things even worse by claiming that Australia “takes more refugees than any other country”, sparking scrutiny from the ABC (Australia’s national broadcaster) that concluded Australia is ranked first per capita in terms of processing refugees through the UNHCR resettlement scheme. This particular pool of migrants, however, accounts for less than 1 per cent of the world’s refugees. In reality, Australia ended up 28th per capita when it comes to taking in refugees.
Even Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán remains unimpressed. In October he slammed Australia for not doing its job to stem the flow of migrants. One could even argue that “stopping the boats” has left the EU as an even more attractive option for migrants that would otherwise apply for asylum in Australia.
“It’s not fair that the USA doesn’t take any in, or only 10,000 to 15,000 refugees… It’s not fair that Israel doesn’t take any at all, that Australia doesn’t take any at all, that the rich Arab countries are dithering,” Orbán told a Hungarian radio station, even though Australia has promised to take in 12,000 Syrians on top of its humanitarian intake of 13,750.
This is something Hassan can agree with: “Australia takes only a small number of refugees in comparison to what it is capable of and is far from doing its share, while the world deals with the largest global refugee crisis since the Second World War.”
The Australian embassy in Vienna declined to comment on this story.