Opinion: Vote for Humanity

12 May 2022

Over the past 10 years, successive governments have reduced Australia’s aid budget, decreased its refugee intake, and failed to provided a solution for hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers held in limbo.

As Australia prepares to go to the polls, Médecins Sans Frontières Australia's Executive Director Jennifer Tierney discusses the need for ethical and humane refugee policies—and the political will needed to secure them. 


MSF community health workers play with young Ukrainian refugees at the Palanca border crossing in Moldova, March 2022. © 
Peter Bräunig/MSF 

Australia’s policies relating to the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees have become an election issue. Not because there is a huge difference in the positions of the major parties, in fact both support offshore processing, detaining refugees, and boat turn-backs, but because discussing refugee policy in Australia presents an opportunity for political fearmongering on regional security matters.   
The politics of fear and the ongoing demonisation of select groups of refugees and asylum seekers (including those currently in Australia’s care) continues to cause psychological and physical harm to some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Whilst some groups of refugees are locked up indefinitely, others are welcomed through fast-tracked processes. This dichotomy makes a mockery of the humanitarian values and standards that should apply to all people seeking asylum in Australia—irrespective of nationality, race or religion. 

Perhaps even more alarming is that both major parties view offshore processing and indefinite detention as a successful policy and a model that other countries could consider adopting. In fact, the UK is moving to do just that right now. However, we at MSF strongly disagree with this version of reality. Instead of saving lives, the offshore processing policy has inflicted immeasurable suffering on those detained offshore (and onshore) for nine years. It has been at enormous moral and financial cost to Australia.In recent months, in the face of sustained and substantial public support for ending the suffering of those living in detention nightmares, the Government has quietly released those detained in “prison hotels” and has agreed to a long-offered deal to resettle 450 refugees in New Zealand. These moves acknowledge the costly failures of the current offshore processing policy—not its success. 

"MSF has always, and will continue, to call for the immediate end to Australia’s offshore processing of refugees and the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and refugees in Australia."

Jennifer Tierney
Executive Director

MSF has always, and will continue, to call for the immediate end to Australia’s offshore processing of refugees and the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and refugees in Australia. This is based on the health impacts of the policy that we have seen first-hand in treating patients on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea.  

Among the 208 refugees and asylum seekers MSF treated in Nauru, 124 patients (60 per cent) had suicidal thoughts and 63 patients (30 per cent) attempted suicide. Children as young as 9 were found to have suicidal thoughts, committed acts of self-harm or attempted suicide. 

Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of MSF’s 208 refugee and asylum seeker patients were diagnosed with moderate or severe depression. The second highest morbidity was anxiety disorder (25 per cent), followed by post-traumatic stress disorder (18 per cent). 

A total of 12 adult and child patients (6 per cent) were diagnosed with resignation syndrome, a rare psychiatric condition where patients enter a comatose state and require medical care to keep them alive. 

A policy that incarcerates people as criminals and destroys hope of a new life, that deprives people of adequate mental and physical healthcare and that is deliberately cruel in leaving people in perpetual limbo, deprived of information about their futures. 

"We call on all candidates to recognise the human tragedy that this policy has caused and to commit to change."

Jennifer Tierney
Executive Director

Whilst we recognise that it is politically unpalatable for either of the major parties contesting the election to admit to the failings of the offshore processing policy, we call on all candidates to recognise the human tragedy that this policy has caused and to commit to change. 

Whoever forms the new government needs to prioritise fixing our broken refugee policy. The current policy causes unnecessary human suffering, is expensive and not well aligned with Australian values. We can do better!  Adopting values of humanity and impartiality in how we treat vulnerable refugees is where we need to start. 

Beyond the immediate humanitarian crisis caused by Australia’s offshore processing policy, the new government needs to look towards the challenges of the years ahead and the constructive role Australia must play in our region.  This includes taking a greater regional leadership role in brokering peace and supporting development in the countries where people are being displaced from. The new government also needs to recognise that climate change will drive more displacement in the decades ahead and that we need effective policies to deal with these challenges in a humane and impartial way. 
We know that getting any Australian government to shift its policy on how it treats asylum seekers and refugees is an uphill battle.  But it is a battle we must keep fighting.