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Australia’s Former Defense Minister: Manus Island Better Than Death at Sea

On Wednesday, Papua New Guinea ordered the controversial Manus Island detention facility closed.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 22:  A group of people hold placards during a protest in Melbourne, Australia on January 22, 2015 to support the Manus Island asylum seekers and call for an end to offshore processing. (Photo by Recep Sakar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 22: A group of people hold placards during a protest in Melbourne, Australia on January 22, 2015 to support the Manus Island asylum seekers and call for an end to offshore processing. (Photo by Recep Sakar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Would a migrant rather die at sea, or be held indefinitely in a prison-like detention center?

That’s the grim dilemma suggested by Australia’s former defense minister, Peter Reith, responding to a question from the BBC about conditions at the Manus Island detention center, which Papua New Guinea’s highest court ordered shut down on Wednesday.

Reith, who was serving as defense minister when the so-called “Pacific solution” to house asylum seekers in offshore detention facilities was first implemented, bristled as a BBC reporter suggested that it was not ethical to hold non-criminals in prison-like conditions.

“There’s thousands of people who are being drowned on their way trying to get to Europe,” said Reith, who had initially declined to make a comparison with the EU. “Despite differences, I’d have to say the Australian approach has been far more successful than what’s happened in Europe today.”

The Manus Island detention center functions under an agreement in which Papua New Guinea houses and resettles asylum-seekers in exchange for financial support. The Australian government has said that facility’s purpose was to deter future asylum-seekers, who travel through Indonesia from places like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran, and Myanmar, from climbing into rickety boats and potentially drowning at sea. And the facility — as well as Australia’s stringent refugee policies — have succeeded in drastically reducing the number of boats headed toward Australia, according to BBC correspondent Jon Donnison. 

However, it has been plagued by accusations of abuse and poor conditions. Detainees have sewn their mouths shut, swallowed razor blades, and gone on hunger strikes to protest their detention. In 2014, after a detainee died from an infected cut in his foot, a former Manus Island guard decried the conditions at the facility as “filthy.”

“Often they’d be standing on concrete to have a shower that was literally falling apart underneath them, just completely rotting away,” the former guard told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

In Europe, migrants often face a perilous journey over water. During last year’s refugee crisis that strained the European Union almost to the breaking point, 3,770 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean. When several Balkans countries shut their borders to refugees in March, the EU responded by making a deal with Turkey to accept returned refugees in exchange for visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens.

The new plan seems to have pared refugee arrivals: On April 24th, the European Commission said it had received 7,800 new arrivals in the past 30 days, compared to 56,000 in February. But like Australia’s experience, it isn’t all above-board.

In March, the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank that analyzes worldwide migration, warned that in order to achieve the goals of the Turkey deal, “policymakers will have to drastically cut legal corners, potentially violating EU law on issues such as detention and the right to appeal.”

And even though courts ordered the closure of the Manus Island facility, the Australian government has made clear that it has no intention of accepting the 850 asylum seekers currently held there, regardless of whether their refugee claims were found to be legitimate.

“The government’s position is very clear, and that is we are not going to accept people who have sought to come to our country illegally by boat, they will not settle permanently in our country,” Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said on Wednesday.

Photo credit: Recep Sakar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Megan Alpert is a fellow at Foreign Policy. Her previous bylines have included The Guardian, Guernica Daily, and Earth Island Journal. Twitter: @megan_alpert

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