Having worked as an advocate and researcher on asylum issues in Australia and several other countries, I often encounter similar responses when discussing the notion of asylum and providing refuge to people fleeing persecution. Perhaps the most entrenched of these centres on sovereignty. This might be expressed through the infamous statement made by former Prime Minister John Howard that “we will decide who comes to this country”, or in the argument that allowing one more boat to land on Australia’s shores will result in a deluge of arrivals. Such responses typically draw a harsh ‘us’ versus ‘them’ distinction between Australians and asylum seekers. Sovereignty also evokes bounded notions of belonging, identity and citizenship. No wonder then that Prime Minister Tony Abbott has chosen to call his plan to ‘stop the boats’ Operation Sovereign Borders.

Sovereignty has always been easier to draw in Australia than it might be in places with porous borders and shared notions of identity across them. For instance, the South Sudan-Uganda border is porous and across it people share a common language and tribal identity. As a result Uganda hosted many South Sudanese refugees during the decades-long civil war between South Sudan and Sudan. It is harder still to impose strict sovereignty arguments when tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing across borders. This is the case for Syria’s neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, who together host millions of refugees with no prospect of return in the foreseeable future.

The idea of asylum, that someone is “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted … unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country" (as the 1951 Refugee Convention states) is a challenging concept to imagine. For many Australians the very idea of facing persecution is a hypothetical concept given we enjoy multiple protective measures such as rights and legislation. Syria was once in a similar position. It actually hosted refugees from neighbouring countries and was well known for its education system, living conditions and safety. Today it has become one of the largest refugee producing countries. Surely this is a harbinger for us that the tables can always turn.

Rather than focus on cooperating over a shared responsibility for refugees, some countries spend more energy avoiding responsibility and stopping people even reaching their borders. Examples that can be found around the world include pushing-back boats, building walls to physically stop people entering, forcible return or refoulement, and bilateral agreements with other countries to host refugees instead. Ironically in the case of Australia, it has been criticised of breaching Indonesian sovereignty by entering Indonesian waters when attempting to push back boats [1]. In this case the sovereignty of another nation is being breached in defence of Australia’s sovereignty.

A macro focus on sovereignty easily obscures individual stories of persecution, which are made even more distant when we send asylum seekers offshore. However much the current government tries to tell us otherwise, maintaining sovereignty and protecting asylum seekers are not incompatible aims. Deploying techniques that infringe another country’s sovereignty in defence of your own is not the answer. Nor is denying responsibility altogether; that simply leads to violations of people’s human rights going unchecked, greater pressure placed on neighbouring states, or creates higher numbers of internally displaced people. It also sets a dangerous precedent to be copied by other nations.

Asylum is ultimately a human right to be enjoyed by all, not a threat to be feared. The fact that the level of debate in Australia has reached the new low represented by Operation Sovereign Borders should be a cause for concern. Sovereignty is being misused as an excuse to avoid offering refugees protection, and so we are leaving vulnerable people in a desperate situation. The ‘solutions’ being proposed by Australia reflect a race to the bottom for refugee protection that no country should be proud of. 


Dr Melissa Phillips is an Honorary Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Her PhD was part of an Australian Research Council Linkage Project on Resettling Visible Migrants and Refugees in Rural and Regional Australia. Melissa has over 10 years experience working with refugees and asylum seekers in Australia, the United Kingdom, Libya and South Sudan for the United Nations, Red Cross, and other NGOs. She has published in the areas of migration, multiculturalism, the role of diasporas and transnationalism.

Twitter: @migratorymel 

[1] See for example http://www.vice.com/read/is-the-australian-navy-turning-back-asylum-seeker-boats.