Sydney-Thousands of Australians marked World Refugee Day (20 June) on 19 June by rallying to demand an end to mandatory detention of asylum seekers. The turnout was sparked by a backlash against a federal government plan to deport 800 boat arrivals to Malaysia as early as next week as a “swap” for the resettlement of 4,000 refugees from Malaysian detention centres.
Australia’s National Council of Churches, Catholic aid agency Caritas, the Uniting Church and 15 human rights groups released a joint statement criticizing the policy. “We call on the Australian government and Opposition to abandon policies aimed at punishing groups of asylum seekers as an example to others and to work cooperatively on the challenging task of developing a regional framework to protect people fleeing persecution,” they said.
Anglican Primate Phillip Aspinall urged the government to resist the temptation to treat asylum seekers inhumanely, and to proactively undermine people-smuggling. “It cannot be morally permissible to inflict suffering on asylum seekers in order to stop people smuggling,” he told reporters.
Almost 8,000 people, including 1,000 children, are detained in Australian mainland and offshore detention centers, many for several years, while visa applications are processed.
The United Nations and human rights groups have also criticized the deal, particularly as Malaysia refuses to refer to human rights in the swap agreement. Prominent human rights lawyer Julian Burnside told 1,000 people gathered at the Melbourne World Refugee Day rally that the deal represented a big step backwards and was worse than the opposition’s alternative of reopening a processing centre in Nauru -“only in the sense that garrotting is worse than hanging.”
Nauru, a small island republic in the South Pacific, signed the U.N. Refugee Convention on 17 June. The Malaysian plan is already the subject of a court challenge on behalf of a woman and her four-year-old son, on the grounds they should not be separated from the husband and father.