The United States and other Western countries in recent years have taken a tougher approach to a worldwide refugee crisis that has grown to affect 65 million people, the greatest number displaced from their homelands since the wake of World War II.
Australia’s experience is one notable example. President Donald Trump has said that the United States would cap the number of refugees it accepts to 45,000—less than half of those accepted during the last two years of the Obama administration—but is accepting dozens of refugees that Australia has kept in offshore detention centers, a deal cut under President Barack Obama that made headlines at the start of the Trump administration when it was the subject of a famously acrimonious phone call between the new president and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
In Australia, both major parties of the right and left each support a hard-line approach on refugees seeking asylum in the country. The consensus has consisted of barring thousands of refugees from entering the country and diverting them to offshore processing centers on the island nation of Nauru or on Manus Island, which is part of Papua New Guinea and has been referred to as Australia’s Guantanamo Bay.
The situation has created a “crisis moment,” not only for refugees—who have suffered psychological and physical abuse—but for Australia’s own democratic institutions, said Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy for the Human Rights Law Centre.
The organization is waging a two-pronged fight to protect refugees’ rights while also educating the public on the conditions that refugees face at the processing centers.
“What we’ve seen from both sides of politics on this issue is a mentality that anything goes,” Webb said. “And once you cross those lines, and once your start abandoning those basic and long-held standard of democracy and the rule of law and international human rights law, that sets a really dangerous precedent in a country like ours.”
In 2013, the Australian government put control of the asylum program in the hands of the military, which patrols the waters around Australia and intercepts refugee boats.
If the refugees make it to Australia, there is a mandate to ship them to the processing centers. Government officials say that the policies are needed to curb the flow of refugees into the country, a supply chain that some say fattens the pockets of smugglers.
The United Nations, which has raised alarm about the conditions of the detention centers, recently called on Australia to bring the refugees on Manus and Nauru into its borders In fighting for refugees’ rights, Webb said, his organization has been met with vehement opposition from the Australian government.
For example, Webb said, the law center filed petitions on behalf of refugees arguing that Australian law does not allow funding of detention centers in foreign countries.
In 2015, while the court was still considering the arguments, the Australian Parliament passed a law retroactively allowing the government to pay for detention centers, back to 2012. But Webb said that, for leaders in Australia and other Western countries, there exists a “great political incentive” to whip up fears about outsiders arriving at their borders and in turn exacerbating the crisis.
“If every country just focuses on repelling them, on frightening them away, then they’ll have nowhere to go,” Webb said.
Webb recently sat down with the Law Journal while in New York City to visit the United Nations to discuss the legal issues surrounding the refugee crisis in his home country and what steps his organization is taking to help.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What is your organization doing to address the refugee crisis in Australia?
Legal work as well as advocacy work. Our legal work focuses on preventing people who have been evacuated from Australia’s offshore detention centers who have been evacuated for medical care from being sent back there. We have a series of cases in the high court of Australia that seeks to prevent 400 people—women who have been sexually assaulted on Nauru, men who have been shot at and beaten on Manus Island, children who have been so traumatized by offshore detention that they’ve needed urgent psychiatric care.
We have cases on foot to prevent them from being sent back to danger.
Our advocacy work—you get policies like this when issues have been politicized. And for the last 20 years in Australia this issue has been poisoned by toxic rhetoric about borders and boats and smugglers and sovereignty.
Actually it’s about people, it’s people who are being imprisoned in these island camps, and so a key focus of our advocacy is exposing the human face of these policies.
What are the biggest challenges for your organization to influence public opinion on the refugee issue?
Our advocacy challenge is to reinsert humanity, and when we do, we win. But the challenge is in doing so. There are legal and practical barriers to the flow of information. Whistleblowers face the risk of prison (Australia’s Border Force Act gives the power to jail employees and contractors who speak out about the conditions in the camps for up to two years) and the ever-present threat of very public and very aggressive retaliation from the government. The [immigration minister] has attacked lawyers defending the rights of refugees as “un-Australian.” The [Australian] Human Rights Commission has been ruthlessly attacked for daring to suggest that the mandatory and indefinite detention of children is harmful. Save the Children workers from Nauru were kicked off the island when they spoke out publicly about child abuse. People who speak out are attacked.
Have other segments of the legal community stepped up to assist you in your efforts?
Yes. I see a lot of awful things in the work that I do, huge tragedy and injustice. But the good part about my job is I walk away from all of those interactions feeling empowered that there’s something we can do. The source of that empowerment is the support from the private legal profession in Australia. We work with the biggest and best commercial law firms and barristers right around Australia to protect the rights of people seeking asylum.
I think the interesting thing about lawyers is that they understand the need for a rules-based system. They understand that, whatever the political issue, there are standards you must meet, and lines you must cross, and a right to access justice. And what we see in the refugee context is those standards being breached and those rules being broken. I think that affronts lawyers, especially.
[They’re providing] pro bono legal assistance. We are a small nongovernmental organization with charitable status and we pack a punch. But running hundreds of cases in the highest court in our country is a lot of work and we couldn’t do that without the phenomenal, principled support of private lawyers around the country, whose engagement is not with politics, it’s with people.