Instituted as a circuit breaker by the then Labor Government to stem the tide of boat arrivals in 2012, the reopening of processing centres on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru sparked an era of harsh policy relating to people seeking asylum in Australia and arriving by boat. The policy of offshore detention was extended in July 2013 when then Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, stated “Those folks are not going to be allowed to settle in Australia”. Despite its history with the centres on Manus Island, PNG and Nauru, the Australian Government reinstituted the centres to deflect and deflate the growing tide of people arriving in Australia by boat.
More than three years later with the additional stipulation that transferees cannot be resettled in Australia, there has been little or no change for the people in either centre.
The so-called “Nauru Files” (published by the Guardian news service on 10 August 2016) highlight the plight of the people detained on Nauru and Manus Island, PNG. The proof is indisputable that people in the centres are at serious risk of mental, physical and emotional harm without imminent sign of improvement.
Because they are located within the sovereign nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru, the Australian Government denies it has responsibility or influence over the centres. However, the centres were established by and are maintained and paid for by the Australian Government.
Detention is harmful
National policy and political attitude towards people seeking asylum and refugees needs to change. Australians do not want to see people put in harm’s way. Offshore detention is harmful: it is psychologically and physically harmful and leaves transferees with no hope.
Overwhelming evidence from the Nauru Files, backed up by the Amnesty International Report “Island of Despair: Australia’s ‘Processing’ of Refugees on Nauru” and supported by the ABCs Four Corner’s program “Island of Despair” which aired Monday 17 October 2016, show in graphic detail the harm caused by offshore detention.
Australia and Australians should not deny knowledge of the harms caused by Australia’s offshore processing regime. The Government claims to pursue the policies in order to save lives at sea. However, that causing more harm is a viable solution, beggars belief. That causing harm is the only solution, beggars belief.
Resettlement will not restart the boats
In 2008 Australia closed the detention the centre on Nauru in 2008 and resettled the people in Australia. This did not prompt people smugglers to resume their trade. Over 70% of people processed in these centres before 2008 were found to be refugees. Of those, over 90% were resettled in Australia or New Zealand. Boats did not start arriving again in any significant way until 2011, fuelled by escalation of conflicts in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
People attempt to seek asylum in Australia because it is seen as a safe place to take refuge from the danger from which they are escaping. Some of those people are without official identity papers as they never had them, others because they are stateless, others because in their panic to escape, the papers were left behind. In the desperate attempt to find refuge, getting on a boat can be the only option for finding a safe haven.
Detention is costly
Off shore detention is costly. The exact figures are difficult to collate. Conservative government estimates of spending on maintaining the offshore processing centres in Nauru and Manus Island, PNG in 2015-16 was $880 million (or $677,000 per person) for the 1300 currently in the offshore processing centres. This figure does not include the cost of the military operation or boat turn backs nor what has been spent on these centres and building supporting infrastructure in Nauru and PNG already. The 2016-17 budget allows for $1.1 billion Australian dollars or $846,143 per person per year to be spent on offshore detention. Some estimate the total cost could be as high as $10 billion spent on the centres since 2013.
There are better ways to spend that money. The total United Nations Refugee budget was $5.3 billion in 2013 for the more than 20 Million refugees they were trying to protect. Australia is spending a fifth or 20% of that per annum on 1300 people. The cost of offshore processing to the Australian budget is prohibitive. This contrasts sharply with the monies spent on humanitarian assistance onshore which is more like $32,700 per person in the 2016-17 budget. A less expensive option is to close the centres and resettle the people in Australia; redirecting centre funds to regional solutions.
Manus Island, PNG Centre is illegal
Even though the Manus Island, PNG Centre has been declared illegal by the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea, the Australian Government continues to deny responsibility for finding placements for the people it detains on Manus Island, PNG. The Government asserts that all transferees can of course return to their country of origin. However, 98% of those detained on Manus Island, PNG have been assessed as refugees. The Australian Government has offered to fund the return of transferees to their country of origin as an alternative to detention. This “refoulement” (official word for return of refugees to their country of origin or another unsafe place) would mean returning to death, torture, persecution or imprisonment. The option of resettlement in Nauru or Papua New Guinea is untenable because neither nation is in a position to support the additional citizens. There is no access to jobs, land, satisfactory education, health care and so on for the would-be new citizens.
Australia’s solution needs work
Australia’s response requires a bipartisan solution. In contrast to European countries where the priority is search, rescue and recovery, in Australia the focus is on prevention and punishment on a military scale.
The Nauru Files highlight the lack of success of such harsh policies for the people involved. Promises to investigate files and zero tolerance for damage to children are important but some of these files are three years old and the damage continues unchecked.
Unfortunately, successive governments have been aware of the inhumane treatment and conditions but will only act when there is political support for such action. That is why pressure from voters for a more humane approach is important.
The more Australians learn about the actions taken in their name in Nauru and Manus Island, PNG, the more they want the centres closed. Is this the reason for the secrecy: no faces, no names, no history, and no humanity? Did the government know the public would not like the outcome and so chose to hide it?
Senate inquiries and other investigations have not prompted change
The Nauru Files have shown that despite the Moss Review and various inquiries (10 specifically on the Nauru processing centre including six by the Australian Government plus nine on the Manus Island, PNG processing centre including four by the Australian Government), that the situation for the transferees has not changed in the more than three years since the centres were reinstated.
Government and refugee agencies have known for some time of the deplorable situation for transferees on Manus Island, PNG and Nauru. Senate Inquiries and other investigations have made this clear.
The revelations of the Nauru Files have changed the landscape in two ways: firstly, providing irrefutable proof that the situation for the transferees is in fact seriously detrimental to their physical health and emotional well-being: and secondly that it has been so over a long period of time. The various inquiries and reports have not contributed to improvements for transferees. Yet those whose asylum claims have been assessed have been found, in 98% of cases on Manus Island, PNG and 77% of cases on Nauru, to be refugees. A dire picture of abuse and neglect is drawn with Australia the artist, architect and banker.
The Australian Government has no real plan to end offshore detention. Though it committed to accepting 12,000 additional refugees from the Syrian conflict in September 2015, the best indications are that around 3,000 have been resettled in Australia in the twelve months since the announcement. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) claims that 4086 people have arrived in Australia between November 2015 and 9 September 2016, as part of this commitment. Canada met its commitment within three months of announcing it would take 25,000 government sponsored Syrian refugees (between November 2015 and 29 February 2016). As at 3 February 2017, DIBP says that 9,382 people have now arrived in Australia from the Syrian conflict out of the original 12,000 additional places. This is updated monthly.
Community responses to the release of the Nauru Files
Since the release of the Nauru Files the narrative about offshore detention has increased. There have been protests organised by the #Lovemakesaway movement; a petition to #Bringthemhere is available for signing and there are increasing media reports about the centres and the public’s reaction to them. The ABCs Four Corners produced a program on 17 October 2016 based on the Amnesty International report “Island of Despair”. Both publications report directly on the experience, particularly of refugee children and families, in Nauru and conclude that the processing centre is harmful and, due to the deliberate purpose of the centre, constitutes torture. Despite the negative national and international rhetoric gaining momentum, the Government seems unmoved and is, in fact, boastful of its successes through its offshore detention regime. When he spoke to the UN Assembly in New York in September Prime Minister Turnbull urged other countries to observe and follow Australia’s example!
Offshore processing and detention must end
Off shore detention is harmful and a cruel punishment of victims besides contravening international and local laws. Nauru and Manus Island, PNG detention centres should be closed and the transferees brought to Australia (or another similar country) for resettlement and rehabilitation.
Academics, educators, medicos, refugee agencies, churches and now the public all agree: the centres must close. The transferees should be resettled in Australia.
Australia can find a better way
The next step is incredibly complex and difficult. It will take time, consideration, ingenuity and patience. Australia can do that. We are a nation of innovators. We can be a nation of humanitarians. We are a multi-cultural society. We have the ability to shrug off our fears and lead our region toward a solution to a problem we are facing together. We are uniquely positioned to make a difference in this global humanitarian crisis and find a solution that will benefit the whole world.