Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has introduced a new anti-immigration bill aimed at stemming the tide of refugees being smuggled into the country by boat.
If passed, the law would impose even tighter restrictions on any asylum-seeker who arrives by sea, which is already prohibited by Australian law. In addition to cementing the ban on settling in the country, the bill would also prohibit these asylum-seekers from ever visiting the country.
The bill, the latest in a long line of strict measures taken by the government to stem the tide of refugees into Australia, has drawn sharp criticism from human rights groups across the country and from the international community. Supporters of the bill, however, say that the harsh policies are necessary in order maintain the integrity of its borders during the current global refugee crisis.
As the war in Syria and conflicts elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East rage on, the flood of refugees from the region has created the largest refugee crisis since World War II. While the number of immigrants fleeing to Australia is fairly low compared to the influx into Europe, Australia has adhered to a hardline anti-immigration policy since 2013, when a settlement ban against immigrants attempting to get to the country on boats was put into effect by the country's Labor Party.
But under Mr. Turnbull's more conservative government, the attempt to keep refugees out has been stepped up even further. "Operation Sovereign Borders," a blockade aimed at preventing refugees from being smuggled in by boat, has allowed no refugee ships to land on Australian soil since July 2014, according to the Wall Street Journal.
While most asylum seekers come to Australia by plane, a rise of refugees by sea has led to widespread public opposition to boat landings on Australian shores, driven by concerns about sinking and drowning associated with unsafe human smuggling practices. But many Australians support the program as a means to preserve the integrity of its borders against illegal immigration, reflecting anti-refugee sentiments that have been gaining strength internationally in recent years.
"A generous humanitarian program, a harmonious multicultural society, depends on the Australian government being in control of its borders," Turnbull said at a press conference Sunday. "And it depends on us sending a united and concerted answer to the people smugglers, that if they seek to bring people to Australia, those passengers will never settle in this country."
Turnbull's proposed bill would ban any sea-based asylum-seeker from ever visiting Australia, even in the event of a marriage to a native Australian. The only exception to the ban applies to those under the age of 18.
The new measure is an unexpectedly tough proposal meant to prevent any asylum-seekers who had been apprehended by the Australian government for attempting to cross into the country from finding a legitimate way into the country. The bill would apply to any refugees that were put into processing centers in camps on Manus Island and Nauru since July 19, 2013. These camps have been widely criticized by human rights groups for alleged abuses meant to deter potential asylum seekers. These camps were established off of Australian soil in poorer nations such as Papua New Guinea, which houses the Nauru camp. As the Christian Science Monitor's Bamzi Banchiri explained:
Under the controversial program that has drawn widespread international criticism, asylum seekers heading for Australian shores by boat are intercepted by military vessels patrolling the waters and sent to its northern neighbor. The agreement was set up between the two nations in 2013, in which Australia agreed to give Papua New Guinea $309 million in exchange for establishing the refugee camp.
Australian policymakers supporting the program have long argued that the program is intended to protect the lives of the asylum seekers traveling by boat, alluding to the recent high number of asylum seekers who die at sea, while attempting to reach Europe.
In practice, this means that Australia can hold asylum-seekers indefinitely without the protections afforded to people being held on Australian soil, similar to the US arrangement with Guantanamo Bay. By banning any of the people held at these camps from ever visiting Australia, Turnbull's bill effectively closes any legal loopholes that would allow asylum-seekers to enter Australia after leaving the camps. The bill also opens the door for a deal to allow refugees to settle in New Zealand without worries that those countries would allow a back door for them to eventually settle in Australia, which had been a concern for the Australian government.
Refugee advocate Pamela Curr joined much of the international humanitarian community when she called the proposal "appalling" and unnecessary.
"They don't want to come here. They know what we're like now," she told The Sydney Morning Herald. "We've gone from a country which offered protection to a country that offers persecution."