Australian asylum policy is riddled with internal contradictions. The ease with which individuals may seek refuge in Australia is heavily undermined by the flawed policy, as are the innate human rights these individuals deserve to be afforded in seeking freedom from war or persecution.

Since 2012, individuals seeking asylum in Australia have been sent to offshore processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. During this time, the asylum seekers have faced various inhumane living conditions and human rights abuses. An account by Behrouz Boochani, a man illegally detained on Manus Island, revealed the extent of such mistreatment. However, neither the revelations made by the ex-detainee, nor the actions of like-minded lawyers, have proven cause to enact any change in policy.

Due to overcrowding of the North West Point Immigration Detention Centre on Christmas Island, the Australian Government announced an expansion of the community detention program in Australia, allowing detainees to be placed on bridging visas and brought to the mainland. The community detention under this policy mainly comprised of “alternative places of detention” (APODs), allowing asylum seekers to live at a specified residence in the Australian community whilst technically remaining in immigration detention.

The closing of facilities on Christmas Island in October, 2018 represented a positive step in eradicating Australia’s system of offshore processing. It enabled individuals fleeing war or persecution in their own country to come to Australia uninhibited and live in community detention.

Despite this, the Christmas Island centre was controversially reopened in March, 2019 following the passing of the Medical Evacuation (Medevac) Bill, which allowed detainees from Manus Island and Nauru to receive medical treatment in Australia. The centre was then closed the following month after costing taxpayers $185 million.

Despite its official closure, the detention centre was used again in August, 2019, when a Sri Lankan family of four was detained on Christmas Island after living in Biloela, Queensland, for four years. The family was forcibly taken to a Melbourne detention centre in March, 2018, over a visa expired by one day, before being sent to the Island the following year. Costing taxpayers more than $26 million to reopen — and a full 109-person workforce to operate — the family of four remain detained in the Christmas Island facility. They are its sole occupants.

Meanwhile, some 200 men were brought to Australia under the short-lived Medevac Bill as a result of chronic illness, and were placed in APODs on the mainland, including 120 at a hotel in Kangaroo Point in Brisbane and 70 at the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne. According to the Refugee Council of Australia, it costs approximately $103,343 for one asylum seeker to live in community detention in Australia per year, totalling more than $20 million for the whole group of Medevac asylum seekers.

Costing taxpayers more than $26 million to reopen — and a full 109-person workforce to operate — the family of four remain detained at the Christmas Island facility. They are its sole occupants.

Due to concerns surrounding COVID-19, the detainees in these centres have been pleading for their release. A lack of social distancing and generally poor living conditions, including small hotel rooms with two men to each room, produce conditions which promote — rather than prevent — the spread of the virus. Indeed, as these individuals were brought to Australia under the auspices of the Medevac Bill and on the advice of doctors, they are much more vulnerable to the virus and its effects. The Human Rights Commissioner has called for detainees to be released over COVID-19 fears, however this request has been largely ignored.

Instead, due to significant overcrowding and in the shadow of the global pandemic, the Australian Government announced on 4 August, 2020, its plans to reopen the facility on Christmas Island to reduce the number of people held in APODs on the mainland. The Australian Border Force confirmed that it will be removing “unlawful non-citizens” that could not be returned to their home country due to COVID-19 border restrictions. It is unclear as to how these plans will be executed.

The reopening of the facility on Christmas Island sets back the efforts of human rights activists, lawyers, and community protestors who have tirelessly fought for the liberation of the Biloela family and individuals detained in APODs. It also represents a deterrent to future individuals seeking asylum in Australia.

The experiences of the Biloela family and the Medevac asylum seekers reveal the ability of governments to neglect the human rights of individuals during a global pandemic, instead choosing to ruthlessly promote national self-interest. This sets a dangerous precedent moving forward as the number of people seeking asylum in Australia increases and the Australian government trials alternative measures to deal with this challenge.

Dakota Parker

Dakota Parker is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in International Law and Diplomacy at the Australian National University.

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