Refugee Rights and Policy Wrongs

Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong


no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark …

you have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land

Home by Warsan Shire


Most of us cannot imagine how intolerable the circumstances must be when risking your life on a dangerous boat journey becomes a rational decision. The only reason you would do it is because you have no choice – because to stay at home is to face certain death. 

Official statistics show that the vast majority of people who arrive in Australia by boat are found to be in need of protection – because they have a well-founded fear of persecution or they otherwise face a real risk of significant harm if they are returned to their homelands, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and beyond. 

Yet, successive governments in Australia have declared the need to ‘stop the boats’, at all costs.  If you come by boat to Australia, you will be intercepted by the military and turned back at sea.  Failing that, you will be forcibly removed to a remote island in the Pacific, where you will likely be detained for years while your protection claim is assessed. Even if you are found to be a refugee, you will never be resettled in Australia. 

The human cost of Australia’s policies is extreme. At the time of writing, 906 refugees and asylum seekers remain on Nauru and Manus Island, living in conditions of extreme deprivation and despair. Over 80 per cent suffer from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Experts say that the levels of trauma offshore exceed those in war zones and disaster zones around the world. Twelve people have died, on Australia’s watch. 

At a time when there are more people in need of protection globally than at any time since World War II, Australia’s policies of deterrence are indefensible. They violate Australia’s obligations under international law – obligations to which our government has voluntarily agreed. They do nothing to address the underlying conditions that lead people to take boat journeys in the first place – persecution and human rights violations at home, and the lack of alternative pathways to safety. Australia has simply pushed the problem away – out of sight, out of mind. 

In Refugee Rights and Policy Wrongs, we argue that a radically different approach is possible – one that is consistent with international refugee and human rights law. Australia is one of the world’s most harmonious, multicultural and socially mobile countries. We have the capacity to accommodate and celebrate diversity, and to be generous towards those who seek our protection. 

Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong's book Refugee Rights and Policy Wrongs will be published by NewSouth in July 2019.