Sink or Swim: The Asylum Issue in Australia


Earlier this month, 29-year old Leorsin Seemanpillai self-immolated and died, with burns to 90 per cent of his body.

A Tamil asylum seeker who had been living on a bridging visa in Geelong since May last year, Leorsin doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire.

He had been living in fear of being sent back to Sri Lanka.

This is by no means unprecedented. To date, countless asylum seekers and refugees have lost their lives in an attempt to seek a new life in Australia. This is not counting the innumerable unnamed individuals who have committed acts of self-harm, in a desperate bid to end their lives as their hopes for resettlement are diminished as each day passes by.

Some of these individuals have been waiting indefinitely, and these include children.

It also includes hunger strikes that have been staged at the various detention centres both on- and offshore, most notably a recent protest on Christmas Island.

Asylum seekers were protesting against the death of Iranian Reza Barati. It went on for more than a week. Seven protesters sewed their lips shut in the protest.

What does this all mean for Australia, a signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and more concerning, the Convention Against Torture, and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment?

For the past 22 years — and in particular since the introduction of Operation Sovereign Borders — it might as well be that there is no asylum seeker protection at all, with boat arrivals facing a “no-advantage” offshore detention policy, and refugees facing arduous processing times. 

This appears to be a deterrent, but how do you effectively deter people from fleeing political strife, persecution and mortal danger in their home countries?

Already, there has been extensive research demonstrating the harm caused to asylum seekers, both in detention and on bridging visas, adding to their vulnerability and diminishing hopes for a future. Doctors have also revealed that medical care administered to asylum seekers in detention is inadequate.

Why are we confining them in prison conditions when many have only recently escaped similar plights? The fallout is staggeringly obvious, and has now descended into senseless cruelty.

Of course, all of this is not new. Every day, Australians are inundated with reports and media releases of the atrocities faced by asylum seekers in offshore detention centres: the average length of time now spent in closed facilities is 305 days, the highest level in more than two years.

The situation is bleak, and sympathisers mostly all echo one opinion: that of helplessness in the face of institutional giants.

Besides spreading the word, lobbying for rights and volunteering individual resources, a lot of work rests heavily on the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to decrease trauma and effectively resettle asylum seekers so that they may have a shot at starting a new life away from sites of fear.

At the moment, Australia’s offshore treatment of asylum seekers is hugely costly in financial terms, with nearly $3 billion estimated to be have been spent in 2013-2014.

This exceeds the amount that will be spent processing refugees on the mainland, with better hopes of integration, and following that, resettlement.

What is currently being enacted is disastrous on a large scale: firstly, for international relations, and secondly, towards innocent lives capable of contributing to wider Australian society.

The collective mindset appears to construe these issues as extremely complicated, and it may be. A lot of work has to be done on an institutional level in terms of regional cooperation, reducing the backlog of family reunion applicants under the Special Humanitarian Program, and increasing the number of resettlement places.

However, there are options available to help asylum seekers on an immediate level without endangering their lives and mental health, and it is up to the relevant authorities to take them.

Ending incongruous ‘solutions’ such as visa freezes and offshore processing will end the limbo asylum seekers are subjected to and allow them to have opportunities to join regular society, where their skills and experiences can be put to use.

After all, when Australia signed the UNHCR Refugee Convention, it also promised refugees could “lawfully stay in the territory and be accorded the most favourable treatment to nationals of a foreign country in the same circumstances.”

How have we strayed so far from these declarations?

The lives that we are currently faced with are real, and we cannot pretend them to be mere inconveniences in the system, to be ignored and eventually disposed of.

The mounting evidence pointing to the effects of Australia’s ruthless and inhumane handling of asylum seekers cannot be overlooked. They may be out of sight, but they are not out of mind.

Cher Tan is a freelance writer in Adelaide.

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