There is a pitch-black irony about Australians imprisoning refugees on a foreign island. It makes you wonder what happened to the collective memories of the Fatal Shore. Yet island prisons, granted the Orwellian-bland name ‘offshore processing’ by successive Canberra governments, have been operating on and off for years.
Of course, there are differences between this 21st-century low-budget remake of Papillon and Britain’s prisoner dumps of 200 years ago. After all, back then the queen didn’t need to ask the locals if it was okay to park a bunch of foreigners on their land. The Good Old Brits could just go ahead and steal it, then pack ne’er-do-wells such as early trades unionists aboard convict transports and forget about them for ever. Conditions on arrival were normatively brutal, with one of the only creative outlets being bespoke, designer bullwhips studded with ingenious ways to flay human flesh. Back in Westminster, members of Her Majesty’s Government congratulated themselves on a wizard wheeze.
Australia has a bad case of selective amnesia, amply attested to by my colleague Ahmad Soheil Ahmadi’s interview with Dr. Daniel Borhani Lumani in Maqshosh English. On the one hand, Aussies never hold back in reminding British Poms of the iniquities suffered by the first convict ‘settlers’. Yet on the other, they’ll happily incarcerate thousands on new ‘fatal shores’ in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. And deaths have, unfortunately, resulted.
In these more ‘civilized’ times, Australia must get agreement from the Papua New Guinea and Nauru governments to create their modern Devil’s Islands. They must pay hard cash, too. Given the relationship between what is euphemistically dubbed the ‘Offshore Processing’ system and Australia’s rambunctious electoral cycles, it’s fair to say that refugees wanting to apply for asylum in Australia are so far out of sight they’ve dropped off the radar. They’re over the horizon and far away.
Being ‘off-shored’ to PNG or Nauru must be a bit like arriving in Albany in 1826, except that a hostile local population is all around you, rather than hidden in the bush fuming with bemused resentment.
How did it come to this?
Refugee arrivals by boat began to tick up in 1975 as refugees from Viet Nam took to the waves in the wake of the fall of Saigon in April of that year. The blip ended just a few years later, the figures for the 1980s showing a minimal annual rate of arrivals in Australian waters. It wasn’t until the end of the 1990s that boat arrivals rose sharply, this time in response to a range of geopolitical factors that included the renewed viciousness of the civil war in Afghanistan.
Then, in 2009, arrivals by boat broke through 5,000 people per annum for the first time since 2001. Then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had abolished the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ (which was anything but pacific, and anything but a solution, unless your goal was to forget about the uprooted). For a brief period until 2014 (Rudd’s replacement Julia Gillard resumed overseas processing in 2010), boat arrivals soared, with a peak year in 2013 of just over 20,000 arrivals. Once Rudd returned briefly as P.M. in June of that year, he forbade arrivals in Australian territory, and the boat turn-backs began once more under the grand-sounding Operation Sovereign Borders.
His hand forced by a tough federal election cycle in 2013, Rudd’s embrace of the ‘offshore solution’ followed the collapse of the proposed ‘Malaysia Arrangement’ which would have seen refugees held hundreds of kilometres from the Australian mainland in the former British colony. A 2011 case in the High Court, lost handily by the government, kyboshed that idea. In 2012 the government began implementing the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers it had earlier convened, raising Australia’s humanitarian quota from 12,000 to 20,000 resettlements a year. Yet the Panel had also come up with the ‘no advantage’ principle, and this was to prove controversial.
In practice, this principle meant selecting and transferring some boat arrivals to regional processing centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. As legal analyst Elibrit Karlsen said, ‘[No advantage’] was also applied to an increasing number of asylum seekers released into the community on the mainland on bridging visas, denying them the opportunity to work and offering them only limited financial support. Significantly, these boat arrivals also remained ineligible for the grant of protection visas ‘until such time that they would have been resettled in Australia after being processed in our region’. However, the Government never clarified the number of years it envisaged these asylum seekers would wait for final resolution of their status, nor did it rule out the possibility of sending them offshore at a later date. The Government subsequently estimated that some 19,000 asylum seekers living in the community were subject to the ‘no advantage’ principle.’
The Australian public seem hypersensitive to issues surrounding asylum seekers. Why else would their politicians froth at the mouth over such largely miniscule figures (see table below)? In 2018 Australia ranked third in the world for refugee resettlement, which sounds great. Then you discover that they gained that bronze medal in compassion by allowing a mere 12,706 refugees to resettle in their stolen land. That is equivalent to just 0.049 per cent of Australia’s population. Extrapolated over a ten-year period, Australia wrapped its arms around refugees totalling just 0.4 per cent of its inhabitants, while by comparison in 2020 alone its natural population growth rate was 1.4 per cent per annum.
Turn-back policies run from 2001 to 2003 and from 2013 to present have been responsible for ejecting dozens of boats from Australian waters. At a press conference in 2018, Australia’s minister for home affairs Peter Dutton told journalists that Operation Sovereign Borders had turned back 33 boats containing a total of 800 migrants.
What’s the journey like?
A number of Asian conflicts have generated refugees attempting to get to Australia, via the Indonesian archipelago. This dangerous and uncertain journey is fraught with risks, and yet the reason refugees make the attempt is that at least the rule of law is solid in Australia and there is less likelihood of being treated arbitrarily.
Refugees sacrifice so much just to undertake their flight that it is logical they should try to give themselves every chance of success. Should they land in Malaysia, with its record of pirate enslavement and massacres of refugees? Indonesia, where the government has in the past instigated massacres of hundreds of thousands? Or should they strike out for Oceania, where there’s less likelihood of their loved ones being raped and killed? It’s not a hard decision to make.
When they eventually succeed in this epic journey, they’re placed on the islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea, where communal violence is rife. Local contractors hired to ‘look after’ asylum seekers are responsible for repeated acts of physical and sexual abuse, and overall neglect including a lack of medical facilities. 50 complainants this week (12/10/20) won a partial victory over Peter Dutton and his department in an action claiming that Australia is responsible for this inhumane treatment. The country’s policies, which could be described as institutionalized criminal neglect, have caused young children to cut themselves, attempt suicide, and suffer years of horrifying nightmares. Women have been sexually abused. Asylum seekers have been beaten by contractors and locals alike, and their living quarters set ablaze. More than a dozen have died, including a number who committed suicide rather than endure the tropical iniquities.
The inhumane and criminal treatment of refugees on Nauru and Papua New Guinea has included
+ sexual and physical abuse, including of children, women and homosexual people
+ inhumane or degrading conditions, including through overcrowding, poor quality housing and services
+ exposure to violence and harm, including from the military and the local community
+ grossly inadequate access to health services
+ deaths and harm caused by negligence or delays in getting medical treatment
+ terrible consequences to mental health, caused by indefinite and prolonged detention and the limbo caused by the uncertainty of the policy.
Amnesty International, the Refugee Council of Australia, and numerous other organizations have documented the horrors (links below).
The situation deteriorated after the Australian High Court ruled offshore detention legal in December 2015. A woman had brought the case claiming that Australia was not fulfilling its obligations on the human treatment of asylum seekers. One five-year-old boy who had been raped on Nauru faced being forcibly returned to the island as a result of this case. Australia’s indefinite detention of refugees in island nations it can browbeat into compliance is a black stain on its humanitarian record. As in the Windrush case in the UK, which relates to legal migrants whose papers were destroyed in a housekeeping exercise, governments these days are happy to use the excuse of bureaucratic impartiality as a smokescreen for their lack of common humanity. They can plainly see that what is happening is inhumane, and yet they refuse to intervene, arguing that the law will decide the matter.
Yet benign neglect hadn’t been enough for the Australian government, which on July 19, 2013 had banned any asylum seeker arriving by boat from ever being resettled in Australia. Then, in 2016, after winning the previous year’s court battle, the Liberal prime minister and coalition leader Malcolm Turnbull enacted a law that forbade any asylum seeker attempting to reach its shores by boat from ever visiting the country, not even for a holiday. At the time, Turnbull said ‘You need the clearest of clear messages. This is a battle of will between the Australian people, represented by their government, and these criminal gangs of people smugglers. You should not under estimate the scale of the threat.’
To many observers, it looked more like a battle of will with refugees. It looked like what it was—populist overkill. In the years since, some progress has been made through intense public pressure. The Guardian’s publication of the Nauru Files in July 2018 documented more than 2,000 serious incidents ranging across the spectrum of psychological and physical violence. The camps, which housed a total of more than 4,000 people during their eight-year stint of ‘offshore processing’, saw the last child moved to the mainland in 2018. As of October this year, 300 people remained, half on Nauru and half housed in accommodation in Port Moresby, Papua’s capital.
Overall, Australian asylum policy has been nothing short of aversion therapy for migrants. The aim can only have been to make the experience of asylum-seeking so painful and dispiriting that others are deterred. Unfortunately, this means that as on the Afghan/Pakistan border, there are stateless people stuck between polities and policies. South East Asia’s coyotes run slave camps, systematically rape female refugees and migrants, and bury their mistakes in steamy jungle camps on the Malay peninsula. While the Australian government prepared its case during 2015, their counterparts in Thailand revealed something of the barbaric treatment of refugees in the region, with a mass grave containing 30 bodies and stories of Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants ‘sold like fish’ into slavery. It is when these interstitial spaces open up between war and uncaring governments that the worst abuses really flourish.
The Australian government must take responsibility for the shocking maltreatment of those who are exercising their internationally enshrined legal right to claim asylum in a safe country. It says much about a nation’s humanity when its leaders ignore the ethics they themselves have been taught by their own history. Australia’s current prime minister, Scott Morrison, should check himself. After all, his fifth great-grandfather arrived in the stinking lower decks of a convict transport 200 years ago, having stolen nine shillings’ worth of yarn.
‘It wasn’t a great day for my fifth-great-grandfather, William Roberts,’ Mr Morrison said. ‘Bunkered down in the light-starved bowels of the Scarborough with 207 other convicts, he had arrived in Port Jackson after a long and treacherous voyage from Portsmouth.
‘It was January 26, 1788. It was a new beginning for him, but it would have seemed a particularly grim one at the time and life was indeed about to get a lot tougher.’
Mr Morrison, like other Australians, just loves to trot out his own familial tale of survival. For those descended from the 18th-century invaders, the bloodline back to their petty criminal ancestors is a point of pride. Perhaps the prime minister should listen to a more contemporary take, this time by Rohingya refugee and writer Ziaur Rachman:
People typically lock a door, latch the grill, or turn on the alarm to keep safe. Others like us, the Rohingya, have to take a perilous journey to seek safety. This is not a story just about my family. It is the story of thousands of Rohingya families as well as others like us who have made the same desperate journey filled with unknown dangers that threaten our very lives.
Just think for a moment about how desperate someone has to be to take such a risk in search of protection. The people who have a country to call their own have no idea how lucky they are. I know what it feels like not to have a country, a place I belong.
I also know how the world treats me. It is my sincere prayer that no one else is born a refugee, displaced with our entire lives on constant pause as we seek asylum wherever we may.
Do you feel ‘lucky’, Mr Morrison? Do you?
This article first appeared on Maqshosh English.