Is Australia's controversial asylum seeker policy illegal?

Nov 9, 2015

Widespread unrest reported at detention centre on Christmas Island following the death of an inmate

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Australian authorities are struggling to contain a major disturbance at a detention centre on Christmas Island that was sparked by the death of a Kurdish-Iranian inmate.

Guards were withdrawn from the centre for "safety reasons" after inmates lit fires in protest against the death of Fazel Chegeni, the government said in a statement.

His body was found at the bottom of a cliff on Sunday after he escaped from the facility, one of several offshore detention centres used by the Australian authorities to process asylum seekers.

The government denied that a riot was underway and said it was "endeavouring to make contact with detainees involved in the protest to resolve the situation in a peaceful and safe manner."

Immigration minister Peter Dutton said there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding Chegeni's death, but the Refugee Action Coalition says the incident was "another needless detention death, this time of a refugee who should never have been in detention."

This is the latest in a series of deaths at Australian-run detention camps, with human rights organisations continuing to voice serious concerns about the policies and conditions at the centres.

Why do the camps exist?

Canberra maintains detention centres outside of its territory as part of a blanket ban on people arriving by boat and settling in Australia. Australia has detention centres on Christmas Island, Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru in the South Pacific to ensure that refugees and illegal immigrants can be processed without setting foot on Australian shores. Asylum seekers judged to be genuine refugees are resettled in Papua New Guinea, Nauru or Cambodia.

Where are the boats coming from?

Many would-be refugees from countries that include Afghanistan, Sudan's Darfur region, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria pay people smugglers in Indonesia to help them reach the northern coast of Australia, often in unsafe boats. Scores of people have died while making the dangerous journey.

What does Australia say?

The waters between Australia and Southeast Asia are patrolled by the country's navy and coast guards, and boats are often intercepted and "towed back" to Indonesia or elsewhere. In 2013, the government initiated 'Operation Sovereign Borders', putting the military in full control of asylum operations. The government points to polls which continue to show widespread public support for the policies.

Is this all legal?

The UN refugee agency says the tow-back policy may breach international law and has long accused Australia of shirking its obligations to refugees fleeing war and conflict. Earlier this year, the Australian Human Rights Commission concluded that the detention of the children of asylum seekers causes them physical and mental harm and is a clear violation of international human rights law, according to the BBC.

"The aims of stopping people smugglers and deaths at sea do not justify the cruel and illegal means adopted," the commission's president, Gillian Triggs, wrote. "Australia is better than this."

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