Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong

People seeking asylum in Australia have become an easy target for a range of anxieties, from unemployment to national security and population size. They are prone to being scapegoated because their voices are often unheard – they do not have the right to vote, and many feel scared or powerless to speak out. Some fear that they may be denied refugee status if they express objections to their treatment, while others are afraid of more general repercussions in a climate hostile to refugees. To compound these problems, people seeking asylum by boat are turned back at sea or sent offshore – which means that many of us don’t have the chance to meet refugees in our daily lives. This entrenches a divide between ‘them’ and ‘us’, hindering us from getting to know each other as friends, colleagues and neighbours – in other words, as fellow human beings with shared values, interests and dreams.

Apart from the tyranny of distance, other obstacles also prevent us from getting to know and understand refugees and people seeking asylum – immigration detention centre staff are required to sign confidentiality agreements, committing them to silence about what occurs within such centres, and the government commonly justifies its own silence about the treatment of asylum seekers by citing ‘operational reasons’, likening this to the non-disclosure of information to an enemy during wartime. Most of us cannot imagine how intolerable the circumstances must be when risking your life on a dangerous journey becomes a rational decision. But most of us can imagine doing everything within our power to protect our loved ones and ensure their safety – and this is the impulse that drives so many refugees.

Many of Australia’s laws and policies violate Australia’s obligations under international law – obligations to which our government has voluntarily agreed. This is particularly incongruous in a country like Australia, which is one of the most multicultural in the world, with a strong history of immigration and an otherwise striking level of tolerance for diversity and respect for human rights. It also doesn’t make sense when official figures show that the vast majority of people who seek asylum by boat in Australia are, in fact, refugees entitled to legal protection.

We wrote this book because we were concerned that a range of problematic assumptions about refugees and asylum seekers had taken root in the Australian community, fuelled by political rhetoric and media scare campaigns. We knew that many of these assumptions were not based on evidence, and yet they were leading a growing number of ordinary Australians – decent, kind and well-meaning people – to support inhumane approaches to people in need of protection.

Over time, the slogans of successive governments may have changed, but the general sentiment has not. People seeking asylum by boat are now described in Australian legislation as ‘illegal’ maritime arrivals – even though everyone has the right to seek asylum under international law. And while we are told that the ‘boats have stopped’, there are record numbers of refugees in the world without durable solutions. At a time when international solidarity is most needed, Australia has simply pushed the problem away – out of sight, out of mind.

Our book provides an updated account of why many of Australia’s asylum policies, developed over the past three decades, are at odds with our international legal obligations. It provides a straightforward account of how international refugee law operates, and where Australia’s laws and policies fall short of what international law demands. It also brings facts to bear on a highly politicised debate.

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.

Refugee Rights and Policy Wrongs is published by NewSouth Books.

Jane McAdam is Scientia Professor of Law and Director of the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales. She is a Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School and at New York University; a Research Associate at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre; an Associated Senior Fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Norway; and a Senior Research Associate of the Refugee Law Initiative, London. Jane publishes widely and is Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Refugee Law. In 2017, she was awarded the Calouste Gulbenkian Prize for Human Rights, becoming the first Australian recipient of the award.

Fiona Chong is a lawyer and was recently a Human Rights Fellow in the Master of Laws program at Columbia University. She has previously worked as a lawyer at the Refugee Advice and Casework Service and as a Postgraduate Public Interest Fellow at Refugees International.