The Australian government’s approach to asylum seekers has been highly controversial and well publicized, both nationally and internationally, over the past two decades. Australia is a state that has developed and grown through immigration, however all throughout its history, policies have been implemented to prevent foreign settlers from arriving in the country. While the Rudd government has softened asylum policies, more could be done to ensure a more humanitarian and international approach is adopted.
Prime Minister Paul Keating began the mandatory detention for asylum seekers in 1992, in response to the growing concern of the number of people seeking asylum in Australia from Cambodia, China and Indonesia (Freeman). Initially an asylum seeker could only be detained for a maximum of 273 days, however this restriction was removed in 1994; thereby permitting individuals to be indefinitely detained (Freeman). It is not an uncommon practice to detain asylum seekers while their documentation is being processed. Criticism of Australian immigration policies has arisen due to the poor conditions of the detention centres, the treatment and mental health of individuals detained and the length of detention (Freeman).
Australia’s governmental policy on asylum seekers came under international scrutiny in 2001 during the "Tampa Affair" when a Norwegian freighter, MV Tampa, rescued 438 asylum seekers from a shipwreck and attempted to land on Australian territory (Freeman). Under international law, any shipwrecked survivors are to be taken to the closest port in order to receive medical treatment (Freeman). However, Prime Minister John Howard refused MV Tampa entry into Australian waters after the ship requested permission to transport the survivors to the closest port, which was Christmas Island (Freeman). Howard’s government ordered MV Tampa to return to Indonesia, a journey that would take 12 hours (Freeman). Howard tried unsuccessfully to cover his actions by introducing a retrospective Border Protection Bill into parliament – which would have permitted the government to exercise "reasonable force" to order any ship out of Australian waters (Freeman).
The MV Tampa refused to follow Howard’s orders to return to Indonesia and successfully landed on Christmas Island, due to the remaining survivors’ urgent need for medical treatment (Freeman).
The Howard government responded by introducing the Pacific Solution, "a three-pronged bill that excised Australia’s Pacific islands from its immigration zones, tasked Australian Defence Force patrol boats to intercept arrival and set up asylum camps on these islands where detainees would be processed before being removed to third world countries when their status was determined" (Freeman). Howard was arming the government with greater power to prevent another Tampa incident and to preclude any boat passengers landing on Australian territory.
Howard’s actions during the Tampa affair and his legislative response to the incident were condemned by the international community. Australia was reported, by Norway, to the International Maritime Organization and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for infringements on human rights (Freeman). Interestingly, the Australian public largely approved of the new immigration policies and this was reflected in the polls; John Howard’s popularity increased during the latter half of 2001 (Freeman). However, public opinion began to shift as stories of attempted suicide, the mental health of detainees and the detention of children became more prevalent in the media; consequently criticism of governmental policy on the treatment of asylum seekers increased.
When ten years of conservative government came to an end, one of the first moves of the new Labour government was to reform Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and...