TASA 2018: Spotlight on refugee rights advocacy in Australia

by Alexia Maddox in conversation with Panel Chair, Dr Amy Nethery

At the Australian Sociological Association conference (TASA 2018) to be held at Deakin University in November, Deakin Scholar, Dr Amy Nethery, and outspoken refugee rights advocates, Emeritus Professor Gillian Triggs and David Manne, will be participating in a plenary panel on Asylum Seeker and Refugee Rights Advocacy in Australia. At the panel refugee activist Fadak Alfayadh will ground the conversation on legal advocacy and policy making, with her experience as a refugee and work as an activist.

In conversation with Dr Nethery, we can anticipate a lively discussion that examines how the current human rights travesty of detention of asylum seekers is the result of bad policy. Drawing from her vast body of research in the field, Dr Nethery points to how laws and policy governing asylum seeking are anti-democratic. She argues that they are bad policy that have been made through processes that are non-transparent, non-accountable, and secretive, with few checks and balances. The result is policy that damages human lives.

The public debate surrounding the detention of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island has been dominated by lawyers and health practitioners – both of whom perform important roles – however Dr Nethery observes that political scientists also have an important role in the discussion. It is vital that we understand how political factors have shaped asylum policy. To date, Dr Nethery argues that the anti-democratic nature of the policy is under-examined. 

While tough asylum policies might be considered favorably by many Australian citizens – and regular surveys shows that this is indeed the case – popular support for policy is not the only criteria for policy to be democratic. Policy must also be transparent, accountable, consistent with domestic and international laws, economically justifiable, and include checks and balances. In contrast, Australia’s asylum policies are secretive, expensive, inconsistent with international law, and harmful.

Dr Nethery argues that Australia’s anti-democratic asylum laws have been developed incrementally over the past three decades and are supported by both major parties. She argues that asylum policy is shaped by two enduring political myths. First is the political myth that being tough on asylum seekers wins elections. The second is that to relinquish the smallest humanity – such as, for providing very sick children on Nauru with health care – would result in the whole system of border protection unravelling.

These two myths mean that consecutive governments have responded to asylum seekers with increasing militarized response. Reframed as a ‘border protection’ issue, the issue of asylum seekers travelling by boat is treated as though it is an issue of national security, justifying secrecy and great expense. Creating the perception of control is an important part of the government’s agenda.

Asylum policy has also been designed in order to increase executive control – particularly the discretionary powers of the Minister – and to remove the ability for lawyers and human rights organisations to intervene in the treatment of individuals. Lawyers and other groups providing essential checks and balances over the policy are disempowered from performing this critical democratic task.

Dr Nethery explains that the restriction on checks and balances has been part of immigration detention policy since it was first implemented in 1989. She points to the remote locations of detention centres and the practice of transferring detainees between centres without notice and with no justification, as two ways the policy restricts access of pro bono lawyers and other people providing vital independent external oversight.

In February this year, while advocates’ attention was focused on the tragedy on Nauru and Manus Island, the government passed laws to make it more difficult for visitors, including family, to access people detained in detention centres on the mainland. The result is that people, many of whom have been detained for years, are stranded indefinitely and without support in a punitive system.

Dr Nethery anticipates that between now and November there will be several policy changes as a result of sustained and coordinated advocacy from various areas of Australian society. Consequently, she anticipates that the TASA 2018 plenary panel will respond to the conference theme of Precarity, Rights and Resistance by providing pivotal insights into real-time events surrounding refugee rights in Australia as they unfold.