Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Human Rights Cast Aside: Navigating Australia’s Asylum Seeker Detention Regime



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Guest post by Rachel Sharples and Linda Briskman. Rachel is a Sociologist in the School of Social Sciences at Western Sydney University. She is a member of the Challenging Racism Project. Her research areas include displaced persons, refugees and migrants in local and global settings; the construction and projection of ethnicity, culture and identity; statelessness, citizenship and belonging; and spaces of solidarity and resistance. Recent publications include claims of anti-white racism in Australia, discrimination in sharing economy platforms and the concept of borderlands spaces. Rachel’s manuscript, Spaces of Solidarity was published by Berghahn Books in 2020. Linda is Margaret Whitlam Chair of Social Work at Western Sydney University. She began her social work career in the field of child and family welfare. Her fields of expertise are Indigenous rights; asylum seekers/ refugees; and racism, particularly Islamophobia. She conducts research and publishes across these three areas in Australia and internationally. Recent books include: Social Work in the Shadow of the Law (co-edited with Simon Rice and Andrew Day 2018) and Indigenous Health Ethics: An Appeal to Human Rights (co-edited with Deborah Zion and Ali Bagheri 2021).

This is the fourth post from our new themed series focusing on selected chapters from the newly published Handbook of Migration and Global Justice, edited by Leanne Weber and Claudia Tazreiter and published by Edward Elgar. The editors’ complete introduction to the handbook is available as an open access download here.

Christmas Island Detention Centre

Asylum seeker case studies in Australia are emblematic in revealing the colonialism of Australia’s asylum seeker regime and its ‘raced’ foundations. They also expose Australia’s obsession with ‘values’ where groups are pitted against each other over a contested national identity and denied shared humanity. Elusiveness of notions of belonging ensures human rights are cast aside to maintain a border control regime that blocks pathways to legal, political and social belonging. ‘Boat people’ are at the heart of these constructions leading to one of the harshest asylum seeker regimes in the world. However, while the situation of the Murugappan family, discussed below, symbolises the lengths to which a nation state will descend to deny legal and social citizenship as symbols of inclusiveness, our chapter shows how this mechanism is also utilised against other temporary migrants  such as aslyum seekers, international students and those in precarious seasonal employment.

Australia portrays itself as a generous refugee settlement country, one that embraces multiculturalism and a citizenship welcoming mat. This mythology is palpable in the case of Australian-born Kopika and Tharunicaa Murugappan. While awaiting for their asylum claims to be heard the children and their parents, Nades Murugappan and Priya Nadesalingam were living on temporary visas in the rural Queensland community of Biloela. They were forcibly removed from their home by the Australian Border Force in 2018 and placed in an immigration detention facility in Melbourne. After 18 months, they were put on a plane to be deported back to Sri Lanka from where the parents had fled. A last-minute court injunction, granted because Tharunicaa had not yet been assessed for a protection visa, forced the plane to land in Darwin, from where the family were taken to the Christmas Island Immigration Reception and Processing Centre. Here, the family were subjected to sub-standard facilities and services, including Kopika being escorted to the local school by guards, both an exaggerated response to the perceived ‘threat’ the family posed and a form of carceral intimidation. Extraordinary sums of money were ‘invested’ by the government in detaining the family, a signal that they did not belong in Australia and should be deported, and as a deterrence measure for others who might follow. It is estimated that the cost of keeping the family in detention on Christmas Island was AUD$1.4 million, with the total cost to the government that included attempts to deport the parents and their two children, exceeding AUD$6m.

The family found themselves to be in a category of forced migration where travel by boat is viewed as such a threat to national spaces that it washes away any humanitarian sentiment. When Tharnicaa became seriously ill in mid-2021, she was flown to a Perth hospital for treatment. The government yielded to intense public advocacy to release the family by granting them a short-term bridging visa. In another cruel blow, they were to remain in community detention in Perth, far from their established community supports in Biloela, where Nades had held a job in the local abbatoir and volunteered in the community and their eldest daughter attended the local school.

This is by no means the first instance of child abuse at state hands, but is the most recent and perhaps the most public. Little has changed in the almost twenty years since July 2002 when the Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Justice Bhagwati, reported on the tragedy of children he met at the Woomera detention centre in remote South Australia. Here, instead of breathing the fresh air of freedom, children were confined behind spiked iron bars with gates barred and locked preventing them from going out and playing and running in the open fields. He said he saw gloom on their faces instead of the joy of youth.

In what is frequently denoted as the ‘lucky country’, which hails family values, a strong work ethic and community spirit, the treatment meted out to this family defies not only human rights violations and denial of citizenship but the very essence of morality and shared humanitity. As Hannah Arendt argued long ago, universal human rights do not offer protections when the political community does not recognise a person as having legitimate membership. Restrictions attached to the granting of temporary visas signify racial and social exclusions, and the vilification and targeting of those who are deemed non-citizens or non-legitimate members. Dismantling these injustices is therefore premised on striving for global justice, particularly ensuring that international human rights norms and expectations are applied universally and without prejudice to ensure a more inclusive approach to citizenship. The people of Biloela and other civil society members understand this notion of compassionate citizenship and the context of border fluidity and global repsonsibilities. The Australian Government does not.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Sharples, R. and Briskman, L. (2021). Human Rights Cast Aside: Navigating Australia’s Asylum Seeker Detention Regime. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/12/human-rights-cast [date]

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