This week is Refugee Week, where Australians are encouraged to raise awareness about the issues affecting refugees, while celebrating the positive contributions refugees make to Australian society.

This year’s theme is ‘Restoring Hope’, which sounds opportune, given the government’s decision the renege on the $140,000 it had allocated in the 2014 Budget.

Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) CEO, Paul Power, describes Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s decision to remove the budgeted funding as petty and vindictive. “The withdrawal of our core funding represents a tiny cost saving for the Government – less than half of the annual salary of a Minister – but is close to one quarter of our organisational budget.”

Although Mr Power admits the cuts will hurt the organisation*, he says it will not be deterred from the fight to be a voice for justice and compassion for refugees, who are the hardest hit by our government’s policies.

“Again and again over the past two decades, we have seen how increased use of detention destroys the mental health of asylum seekers who are detained,” Mr Power says.

But it’s not just those in detention whose mental health suffers under our current asylum policy.

A few weeks ago, Leo Seemanpillai, a Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seeker, lost all hope of resettlement and self-immolated. Although no decision had been made on Leo’s case, friends and care workers described the young asylum seeker, who was on a bridging visa, as being ‘very anxious’ about the fear of being returned to Sri Lanka, as had happened to friends of his.

Given the sense of fear and hopelessness created by our current cruel asylum policies, RCOA president Phil Glendenning worries about a repeat of the tragedy. “[Leo’s death] is the product of a very cruel policy that treats asylum seekers as enemy combatants in a war. We use the military on the seas, we detain people for exercising their right to seek asylum and leave them in a state of limbo where every day they fear for their lives.

“At some point in the future, Australia will need to abandon policy outcomes that brutalise, humiliate and harm some of the most vulnerable people in the world,” Mr Glendenning says. “The neglect of the human dignity of refugees and asylum seekers is not being cruel to be kind. It’s just cruel.

“Australian governments have gone to great lengths to convince the Australian public that people escaping persecution require a military response, rather than a humanitarian response,” Mr Glendenning adds.

It’s particularly frustrating, considering the government rhetoric, from both major parties, has been so concerned about stopping the boats. And our obsession with boat arrivals has been garnering a growing amount of concern from the international community, with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres describing it as “very strange”.

At the UNHCR-NGO consultations in Geneva, Mr Guterres praised Australia’s previous history of hosting refugees, and our resettlement program, but puzzled over our actions of closing its borders to people seeking protection via boat. “They receive, I think, 180,000 migrants in a year. If you come to Australia in a different way, it’s fine but if they come in a boat it is like something strange happens to their minds.”

Mr Guterres also reiterated concerns about Australia shifting its responsibilities for asylum seekers to countries like Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and Cambodia. “The fact that Cambodia has signed the Convention doesn’t mean that Cambodia is an adequate space for meaningful protection for people in need,” he says.

The bottom line

As well as the damage to asylum seekers, and to Australia’s reputation, advocacy groups are also concerned about the increasing financial costs of our cruelty – the costs of our cruelty in the last financial year blew out to $3.3 billion, and are set to increase by more than $1 billion over the next year and beyond.

According to Refugee Action Collective (Vic), it costs around $400,000 a year to detain an asylum seeker offshore, $239,000 in detention in Australia, less than $100,000 for an asylum seeker living in community detention, and around $40,000 for them to live in the community on a bridging visa while their claim is being processed.

The numbers crunched by the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce were even more startling. The Taskforce claims taxpayers are fitting the bill for an offshore processing policy that is costing $3,744 per asylum seeker per day. (This is based on 2013/14 Department of Immigration and Border Protection expenditure of $3,357,713,000 for offshore processing, divided by the 2,457 detainees,  divided by 365 days = $3,744.08.)

“This is an absurd amount of money, particularly when the Treasurer is telling us we have a budget emergency and that all options have to be on the table when looking for ways to return the budget to surplus,” says Misha Coleman, executive officer of the Taskforce.

Currently, Australia’s spending on offshore detention is equal to more than half the total global budget for the UN’s refugee agency. “The UNHCR is responsible for more than 33 million refugees in 125 countries, with a budget of $US5.3 billion per year. We’re spending well over $3 billion each year to lock up a couple of thousand people who have broken no law,” Ms Coleman says.

Julian Burnside, barrister and a human rights advocate, argues that Australia should scrap current offshore detention policies and instead implement a Regional or Tasmanian solution, where asylum seekers would live in regional communities, or Tasmania, and be allowed to work and receive Centrelink benefits. Burnside says either a regional or Tasmanian solution would not only benefit the government’s bottom line, at a time it claims to be ‘tightening’ belts, but also offer a more humane and just process for asylum seekers.

“Even if every boat person stayed on full Centrelink benefits for the whole time it took to decide their refugee status, it would cost the government only about $500 million a year, all of which would go into the economy of country towns. By contrast, the current system costs between $4 billion and $5 billion a year. We would save billions of dollars a year, and we would be doing good rather than harm,” he wrote in The Age.

Just like the theme for Refugee Week, advocates do have hope for the future, if alternatives are considered. “Redirecting some of the billions spent by Australia to lock up a few thousand people to cooperating with nations in the Asia-Pacific region to assist asylum seekers with work, education and health rights will go a long way to restoring hope for people in desperate need of refugee protection,” says Mr Glendenning.


Celebrating refugees

Sick of all of the negative press? Here are some uplifting refugee stories being celebrated this week:

Meet Jane Alia, a former refugee, and now a trained dental assistant, Australian Apprenticeships Ambassador, and volunteer at Melaleuca Refugee Centre in Darwin

Ali Ali, former Afghan asylum seeker, urges Australians to “take a different look” at the issue of people seeking asylum

Refugee welcome zone: Leeton addresses tolerance

Services in Newcastle give dignity to refugees.


* Within days of the announcement from Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, RCOA had received $50,000 in donations from the public.

Opening image, courtesy John Englart (Takver).


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