Italian perspective on Australia's asylum seeker shame


Over the last few months, I have been completing a Masters in International Criminal Law at the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) in Turin, Italy. Over the last two weeks, our classes revolved around human rights — always a bit of a cringeworthy topic when one comes from Australia.

Cringeworthy, because when the UN issues a report finding Australia to be in breach of the UN Convention Against Torture in respect of our treatment of asylum seekers, our Prime Minister publicly announces that Australians are sick of being lectured by the United Nations. 

Apparently we're also sick of the Australian Human Rights Commission, especially that pesky Gillian Triggs who keeps going on about children in detention. It appears now that we simply do not wish to hear anything about what happens in Australian detention centres — Parliament has made it illegal to tell us anyway.

By contrast, there is the country I have called home for the past six months. In that time, Italy has received tens of thousands of migrants arriving by boat from northern Africa. Italy's economy is one of the worst in Europe. It is struggling under the strain of the humanitarian crisis that is the unprecedented numbers of migrants arriving by sea. Yet the government does not turn to inhuman methods cloaked in a shroud of secrecy. Italy's approach could not be more different from Australia's.

Between January and October 2014, Italy's search and rescue operation was credited with saving 160,000 lives at sea. All of these people were received by Italy thereafter, including more than 12,000 unaccompanied minors. At the peak of boat arrivals to Australia in 2012, we received about 10 per cent of those numbers.

During its peer review before the United Nations Human Rights Council, no fewer than 39 countries praised Italy for its search and rescue activities at sea following the exceptional arrivals of migrants and for respecting their human rights. Australia was one of them.

Upon being rescued at sea, migrants are promptly brought to Italian territory. Despite the numbers arriving, as a general rule, asylum seekers are not held in detention. In 2013, only 6000 migrants were held in detention and of those, only 150 were asylum seekers. Children are almost never held in detention, only if they request it and a Juvenile Judge approves.

As of 25 November 2014, the maximum period of detention in Italy is 90 days. The average length of detention is 38 days. In cases where an extension beyond 90 days is necessary, such requests are judicially considered.

In Australia, practically all asylum seekers, adults and children, are held in detention indefinitely with little to no judicial oversight.

In Italy, asylum seekers rescued at sea are usually placed in reception centres, which are seen as humanitarian providers rather than detention. Basic services and accommodation are provided, including legal services, and asylum seekers may remain in these centres for up to six months while their claim is being processed. In reality, many asylum seekers remain for up to 12 months — voluntarily.

In addition, unaccompanied minors are entitled to an automatic residence permit and benefit from education, healthcare, accommodation and guardianship. Asylum seekers receive a residence permit which allows them to work if their asylum claim is not decided within six months.

Australia provides nothing of the sort and an asylum claim being considered within six months is unheard of.

While Italy is quietly carrying the load for much of Europe, Australia is handballing its much smaller load to poorer countries who are ill-equipped to handle it.

Of course, Italy does not have a perfect system nor does it escape criticism for the way it handles applications for asylum. However, it does have a fundamentally different attitude from Australia's and that is a focus on humanitarian assistance. Even though Australia is dealing with a fraction of the numbers of asylum seekers, we are failing miserably at doing it humanely and lawfully.

When did Australia become a country to be so ashamed of? Sadly, I remember the exact day: 26 August 2001, when the Norwegian Tampa was refused entry to Australia after rescuing 438 asylum seekers at sea. Since then, we haven't looked back from a bipartisan commitment to violating the human rights of those who need the most protection.

Anna MartinAnna Martin is a Melbourne lawyer and former Vice-President of Reprieve Australia. She is currently writing her Masters thesis on female perpetrators of human trafficking. 



Topic tags: Anna Martin, asylum seekers, United Nations, Italy



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Existing comments

This article must be spread far and wide. Italy is more humane as it has a prior experience of fascism. Australia has not, so it is walking blindly into right wing radicalism under the leadership of very unsophisticated pseudo-conservatives modeled on the American ultra right Tea Party. Eureka Street is doing a service to Australia with its articles.

Bilal | 11 June 2015  

Thank you Anna; the more voices that are raised in denunciation of Australia’s brutal treatment of asylum seekers the better. While it may be a forlorn hope, we should still believe that this insane situation will soon end. As to the events of that day in August of 2001, every politician in the country noted how they secured the political fortunes of the prime minister at the time and with just a few honourable exceptions politicians since have used the same tactics for the same purpose. And therein lies the problem – for as long as voters are willing to trade their support for whoever is prepared to hand out harsh treatment to asylum seekers, for just so long will politicians give them what they want.

Paul | 12 June 2015  

An excellent and timely article. When will the majority here wake up to what Australia is doing? Do we have to wait for future generations to again say 'Sorry'.

Maureen O'Brien | 12 June 2015  

Such a simplistic naïve view of the world Anna. You are the best thing that ever happened to Libyan people smugglers.

Jim Molan | 12 June 2015  

Thank you Anna, People are ashamed of our treatment of asylum seekers, ashamed and angry with our government and feeling helpless as to action.

Jorie Ryan | 12 June 2015  

What a fantastic article, Anna. If only our politicians had the guts to stand up and be different. And by that I mean show the empathy that I know Australians to have. To give others a fair go! After all my mother came from the Netherlands after WW2. Good luck with the studies.

Gerard Macklin | 12 June 2015  

The people that need the most protection are those sitting in refugee camps with nothing. Those are the people we should take. Not the ones that pay to enter illegally. Explain why Saudi Arabia (sitting on the UN Human Rights committee) takes ZERO refugees. Explain why we owe economic refugees welfare when we don't have jobs or homes for our own. Explain why countries should be expected to deal with immigration due to overpopulation.

E.Litster | 12 June 2015  

BRAVO! "WHEN did Australia become a country to be so ashamed of? Sadly, I remember the exact day: 26 August 2001, when the Norwegian Tampa was refused entry to Australia after rescuing 438 asylum seekers at sea. " HOW did Australia become a country to be so ashamed of? When our political leaders abused their God-given talents, - not to serve all God's Children - but to shore up votes for their particular ends .WHY did Australia become a country to be so ashamed of? Because WE allowed them to get away with it for our own short-term self-serving aims. BUT " From everyone who has been given much,(like us), much will be demanded. Luke 12:48

Robert Liddy | 12 June 2015  

first, most don t stay in Italy.go and live in France and look at the stats on crime and welfare.why do you think the Far Right is so popular in Europe ?France/Italy/Spain will follow Greece.unsustainable economic

jean pierre ATHA | 12 June 2015  

Jim Molan, perhaps you might like to state where you are coming from, and why you have labelled Anna as 'naive' etc

Maureen O'Brien | 12 June 2015  

I can certainly relate to your experience, Anna. Twenty years ago I was working in Germany and found myself constantly questioned about Australia's treatment of indigenous people. Being a good little Liberal back then, and like most Australians unconsciously racist by default (or really, lack of exposure to alternative ideas), I tried to defend our country's then attitude and record. But having to do this repeatedly made me really think about it, and once this process started I just could no longer defend it. And when you are no longer blind in one area, you start to see much more. There have been many times in the last 20 years when Australian attitudes, policies and incidents have made me feel ashamed for my country. And unfortunately, from Pauline Hanson's advent the Liberal Party has particularly embraced the votes to be won by exploiting fear and 'the right to be a bigot' - and recognised that these can be winning factors in marginal seats. Thus yesterday, Prime Rabblerouser Tony Abbott's claim "Daesh is coming for us". ISIL and unopposed people-smuggling are real and serious problems needing considered, concerted and properly-funded action, but blustering shirt-fronting is much better for poll results.

PaulM | 12 June 2015  

Thank you Anna; like many of my fellow citizens, I too disown the current government's policy on the treatment of refugees arriving by boat seeking Australia's protection and, as well, the administration of that policy in total secrecy.

Michael | 12 June 2015  

Could we maybe have an article from Jim Molan to explain what is simplistic and naive about Anna, and what Libyan people smugglers gain from her views. Preferably in a christian context.

Gavan Breen | 12 June 2015  

Tell us, Jim Molan, were it possible to rid the earth of Libyan, and all other, people smugglers sometime this afternoon, exactly what advice would you then give to asylum seekers? Would you tell them to proceed in orderly fashion to the nearest UNHCR station in their own country ensuring that they had all the necessary documentation – passports, birth certificates, educational levels reached etc – and a change of underwear as well and wait their turn? Or, were that not possible, would you tell them simply to roll over, face the wall and wait till they die?

Paul | 12 June 2015  

Thanks for putting your heart and mind on the plate Anna. The problem would seem to be political to some, humanitarian to some others. The rest probably are too wrapped up in their own affairs to give the plight of refugees a momentary care. I would suggest the majority of voting Australians are too selfish to engage with the truth of what it means to be a refugee from a strife ridden society that makes a formerly normal living existence impossible. Such people will go to extremely self sacrificing situations to escape their perceived impossibility of continuing to live positively in the place at they've called home. For them, in all its forms, it's 'give me liberty, or give me death', with no apology re quoting Patrick Henry, for their hearts are more aligned with where his was than where ours are. I'll acknowledge the mad scramble to find gold in the 1850s, and the simply economic reasons that people have always moved for, far and near, to have more loot. Acknowledging also the people that maintain 2 residences and visas and can choose whichever political and economic system best promotes their financial capital, and thus choices in this world. They are not being demonised, even if some of them may be personally focused on more loot and more power must be good, because the present world seems to hold that as a virtue surpassing all others. No, this commenter, following other and Anna Martin, is talking about the heart of life that has been best shown to the world by Jesus of Nazareth. Back to Patrick Henry - Indeed, this nation was built upon the guts of immigrant and refugee hearts that staked their lives on a better alternative. An alternative to live beyond oppression. These people embody the best of what it takes to forge what we had, a "fair go Australia". What happened to that fair go heart? We are now "the Lucky Country". Our perceptions seem now to be that we have more to lose than we stand to gain. As voters, we are lined up behind the gate with our tacit agreements that unless the immigrant brings money or professional practice to this country, you're a minority import. Surely it's not news that chunks of cash are the lingua franca for entrance to Australia. Cash is easier to count than the human capital of an individual, granted. But ethically we're exposed, as we're saying cash trumps humanity. Or, cash trumps hearts. I suppose this is what happens to a capitalist system that has lost touch with it's own humanity. Perhaps first commenter Bilal is right - we have lost touch with what inhumanity looks like in the final analysis.

MichCook | 12 June 2015  

thank you for this article unfortunately with the present government and they are supposed to be mainly Catholic devout so called. We get nothing Jesus like from them

Irena | 12 June 2015  

It absolutely stuns me that people like Jim Molan can seriously believe that the movement of people into Italy is caused by people smugglers! Or that overpopulation is why people are theyhave any idea of what's going on in the world that makes people take such terrible risks? Yes, accepting the asylum seekers causes massive economic and social problems in Italy. These problems must be addressed. What is really wonderful is that Italy's starting point is compassion and mercy. Ours is fear and selfishness. Poor Italy is doing more to spread fraternity and peace in the world than rich Australia, fast becoming a national pariah. Soon someone will take away our citizenship of the world!

Joan Seymour | 12 June 2015  

I visited your Country several times as President of the Global Tamil Forum, met my colleague Card.Pell and all 3 Archbishops encouraging Australia not to overlook HR violations thru Border-protection laws.I wish you well for future

Father S.J.Emmanuel | 12 June 2015  

I am an Italian student living in Melbourne for two years. thanks for your article, but unfortunately Italy does not deal with migrants so well as you described. These people that escape from cruel wars and poorer life condition, are usually held in what you called basic centres where are provided of a daily pocket of money(around 15 euro) and constrict to live in poor hygienic condition most of all the time (overpopulated rooms, lack of toilets and cleaning). Many underages came without parents and without ID, often escape to other major cities without any authorisation nor legal support. Many immigrants unfortunately end up to work in farms where the daily pay can be 15euro (circa 20 aud), being exploited by Italians. I am culturally open minded, my husband has Egyptian background and his family went trough a similar process. Immigrants are often seen as parasites of the system and not potential richness in terms of cultural exchange. Italians still hold the majority of the jobs position, where immigrants are mostly isolated to minor and limited position (Asians running restaurants, Pakistani kebab shops,...) it is rare to find a person coming from another country (Asia, Africa and South America) working as teller in a bank or doctor in a hospital as in France or Germany. Italian system is better of the Australian, if that means provide poor health service in many Italian regions and inadequate legal support to both migrants and Italians.

Valentina Caputo | 12 June 2015  

It is good to know that I am not alone in this feeling of being ashamed of our leaders. I am a migrant of 30 years and till recently happy that I chose to come to Australia (not as a refugee but on the invitation of an institution of higher learning). I have been feeling depressed that we have become so selfish and lacking in humanity. Refugees, whoever they are, human beings with sensibilities just like us. I see no way forward for us as a nation. We have also been progressively reducing our aid to poorer countries.

Sushila | 13 June 2015  

Good on you Anna, there are plenty of people who support you all the way. I am ashamed of my government's actions and have petitioned many times.

Helen-Mary Langlands | 13 June 2015  

thank you. The contrast is immense. And its due to the "leadership"- not its people. And who does the leadership serve? Not its people.

Niko Leka | 13 June 2015  

I do trust that this article will be seen by the powers that be in Canberra both the Liberal & Labour Parties. After reading Anna's article what a shameful & disgraceful country, we are!!l It really makes me feel sick to be an Australian. We must support the many Refugee organisations in Australia who are unfortunately not heard in Canberra. Thank you Eureka Street.

Margaret O'Donoghue | 14 June 2015  

Thank you Anna for your insightful article. Good luck with your studies. It is an ongoing shameful situation that Australia, a very rich nation, can allow us all to be so selfish at the expense of the most vulnerable people in the world. We need to stop the wars that are causing the refugee crisis worldwide.

Karen | 14 June 2015  

Excellent article Anna. Unfortunately the situation has deteriorated even further in Australia since this was written, as I'm sure you know, and quite honestly I am in despair. I have never experienced such a lack of humanity, disregard for law..and so forth, shown by both major parties, as a proud Australian citizen, until now.

Gay Graham | 15 June 2015  

Well said Anna.

Catriona Sexton | 24 June 2015  

Anna is incorrect in her facts. Valentino is correct. More than 90% of arrivals leave Italy within 12 months. Itsly is a staging post. The rest of the EEU resents the policy; Italy resents that it is a frontline state close to collapsing North Africa with little assistance. All refugee situations are complex, nuanced and difficult to compare. Anna again, like much of the debate, compares apples with not oranges, but apples with cheese. The support for asylum seekers stops hard and fast quickly and they leave for the larger economies to the north. This is not integration through humanitarian visas, Australian style.

John | 28 June 2015  

Italy is 5th on the list of 44 industrial nations to receive asylum applications. Sweden is number one because it has an appealing economy and a recognition that all Syrians are refugees. Anna confuses saving people thru Nostra Mare program with ultimate resettlement. Sweden resettles; Italy actually is a conduit. The announcement of Labor of a doubling of humanitarian visa numbers, the real need, will place Australia alongside Sweden. I share her concerns with detention. It's just there are quite separate strands to refugee policy and too often discussion gets confused. it's quite conceivable that Labor will have one of the most generous refugee programs of those 44 industrialised nations, alongside the edifice of the harshness of boat arrival treatment.

john | 02 July 2015  

I agree with Jim, John and Jean Pierre - Ms Martin is writing through rose-coloured glasses. As noted - the refugees don't stay in Italy and many actually seek out family and friends in other European countries. Since Sweden legislated 'multiculturalism', crime has gone up 300% while rape 1,400% with 80% of all rape perpetrated by those 'wonderful' immigrants Ms Martin seems to want here. I wonder if Ms Martin has walked through the 'no-go zones' for non-Muslims in England and France. And what about the Sharia courts in England and Sharia law creeping into all English law? Is that what Australians really want?
But what irks me most is the idea that the UN has any authority over Australia - it doesn't. No Australian voted for anyone in that organization, no Australian voted to accept whatever treaty or accord it came up with.
More than anything else, it's time Australia gets out of the UN so we can actually be an independent nation instead of a dog on the UN's leash.

Marie | 06 July 2015  

People admire Australia here in Europe actually...especially the UK. When Australia in 50 years will still be a western country and proud of it's identity many countries in Europe will be a mess (they already are).. they deserve to loose their identity if they can't be bothered to preserve it...just watch the consequences of this crisis unfold in the coming years and you'll see. kindness to others can be cruelty to your grandchildren.

Andre | 16 September 2015  

This is a great article, but a little bit biased. Italy is struggling to cope, right now. It would be unfair to blame just Aussies. Wishing you well.

Colette Jurczyk | 26 June 2016  

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