There’s No Escape From Australia’s Refugee Gulag

One branch of Canberra's notorious offshore detention system has closed. But the men who were imprisoned there are now stranded on a remote Pacific island that doesn't want them.

An image released November 13, 2017, shows detainees staging a protest inside the compound at the Manus Island detention center in Papua New Guinea.
An image released November 13, 2017, shows detainees staging a protest inside the compound at the Manus Island detention center in Papua New Guinea. (Refugee Action Coalition)

MANUS ISLAND, Papua New Guinea — When I first entered the Manus Island detention center in early November 2017, I was confronted with an apocalyptic scene. Toilets overflowed with urine and feces; campfires burned in litter-filled corridors; blood-red graffiti riddled the walls; and zombielike figures lay slumped at odd angles on dirty mattresses and tables. Australia operated and financed this immigration detention center in Papua New Guinea, 758 miles from the Australian mainland’s northernmost point.

I had arrived in the midst of a standoff between the Australian government and the refugees and asylum-seekers it had imprisoned there. After embarking on the treacherous boat journey from Indonesia to Australia, these men were intercepted by the Royal Australian Navy and transferred to Manus Island, where they were left for more than four years with little idea of what the future held and if they would ever be granted asylum.

In April 2016, Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled that the detention of refugees and asylum-seekers on Manus Island was unconstitutional. Because the people held there did not arrive in Papua New Guinea of their own volition, the court ruled that they had not broken immigration law; therefore, keeping them in indefinite detention violated their constitutional rights. Eighteen months later, the Australian government was trying to circumvent Papua New Guinea’s domestic laws by transferring detainees to three new “open” centers on the island. By allowing refugees and asylum-seekers free movement outside the centers, the Australian government could claim the people weren’t imprisoned.

After four years of incarceration, 600 refugees and asylum-seekers refused to leave the center, claiming it was not safe for them to live outside its walls. Many of them had fled wars and persecution, and now Australia was placing them in danger once again.

Every refugee and asylum-seeker I met already living outside the detention center in Manus Island among local citizens had a story of violence at the hands of locals. One frail Bangladeshi man had been hit with a machete, fracturing his arm and slicing his skin. The refugees claimed they were the targets of robberies from local people who demanded money, cigarettes, and mobile phones. A Rohingya man I met had his right wrist in a brace. It was the fourth time he had been attacked since leaving the detention center.

Having been brought to Manus Island by the Australian government, and without viable third-country resettlement options, these refugees were completely dependent on the authorities for their survival. In response to the men’s fears and their refusal to leave the center, the Australian government cut off the facility’s water, electricity, and food supplies in late October 2017. Then it evacuated staff and terminated medical services, all in an attempt to starve the men into submission.

This is what we have come to expect in Australia, a country that has been persecuting asylum-seekers for decades. People without visas have been seeking refuge by boat in Australia since the Vietnam War. But only since 1992 have Australian administrations — of both the traditionally center-left Labor Party and the center-right Liberal Party — adopted a deterrence policy. Put simply, the deterrence policy aims to prevent boats from ever reaching Australia, instead either transferring asylum-seekers to offshore detention centers or returning them to their point of departure before they can lodge an asylum claim. Such a policy directly contravenes Australia’s protection obligations as a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and its protocol.

In the aftermath of 9/11, then-Prime Minister John Howard’s Liberal Party government manipulated public fear and suspicion by enacting the controversial Pacific Solution, which established offshore detention centers on Manus Island and the tiny nation of Nauru (a five-hour, 2,000-mile flight from Brisbane). Suddenly, Afghans and Iraqis fleeing war were labeled potential terrorists, illegal immigrants, and queue jumpers. This marked the dawn of a new era of dog-whistle politics in which Australian elections could be won or lost based on harshness toward people seeking asylum.

Howard and his immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, reasoned the best way to secure Australia’s borders was to punish refugees with indefinite detention, with no time limits, no future, and no hope. It also encouraged people to “voluntarily” return to their countries of origin, even if those countries were still at war. This policy violated the principle, if not the strict definition, of the Refugee Convention’s prohibition of refoulement (or returning asylum-seekers to danger).

The Australian government didn’t monitor the fate of those deported. In the absence of any government verification of their safety, a small Christian NGO, the Edmund Rice Centre, decided to investigate and document what had happened to asylum seekers who were returned to countries such as Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe. The Edmund Rice Centre reported that of the 179 Afghan returnees in 2001, 31 had been killed — many of them by the Taliban. Despite these findings, and the worsening conflict in Afghanistan, the Australian government reportedly resumed deportations of Afghan asylum seekers in 2014.

One such “voluntary returnee” was Shahab. One evening in 2012, while I was working in the Nauru detention center for the Salvation Army, I walked past an ambulance and saw Shahab lying in the back. Shahab had left his family in Iran, fleeing persecution due to his Kurdish ethnicity, and made the dangerous journey to Australia alone. He planned to bring his family by plane once he had reached safety. When he told his wife he had been detained in the Nauru detention center, she didn’t believe him.

Shahab couldn’t tell his family when he would be released. There was no time limit to his detention. Even if he were released, he had no idea what would happen to him. Shahab’s wife was convinced he had abandoned them, so she left him. He was so overcome with despair that he tried to hang himself from a pole inside his tent. Shahab attempted suicide three more times before he was eventually evacuated to Australia from Nauru and admitted to a psychiatric hospital. He later returned to Iran and the persecution from which he had once fled. He has since dropped out of contact.

In addition to forcing refugees back into danger, proponents of deterrence are also fond of arguing that stopping the boats has been a “humanitarian triumph.” This rebranding of a draconian policy goes back to 2008, when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Labor government fulfilled its election promise to close the offshore detention facilities. Shortly after the centers closed, boats started arriving in Australian waters again, precipitated in large part by the violent conclusion to the Sri Lankan civil war. From 2008 to 2011, 263 boats arrived, and by July 2013, 862 people had drowned. In September 2012, Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Labor government reintroduced deterrence and reopened the offshore detention centers in Nauru and on Manus Island, claiming such policies would “save lives at sea.”

It is impossible to correlate this justification for deterrence with the horrific reality on the ground. My father visited Nauru as a pediatric specialist in December 2014. At that time, there were 100 children detained on the island. He treated a 6-year-old girl who had tried to hang herself with a fence tie and a 2-year-old boy with behavior problems who had been prescribed anti-psychotic medicine. More than three years later, 30 of those 100 children remain on the island. More recently, in February, an Australian federal judge ordered the government to transfer a suicidal refugee girl, not yet a teenager, from Nauru to a psychiatric treatment facility in Australia. The judge ruled that failure to remove the girl, who had spent more than four years on Nauru, would put her at risk of suicide.

The current home affairs and immigration minister, Peter Dutton, has refused to transfer refugees and asylum-seekers held on Nauru and Manus Island to Australia for medical treatment, claiming that some people are “self-harming and people have self-immolated in an effort to get to Australia.” Dutton even refused the transfer of a suicidal 10-year-old refugee boy despite the well-documented deterioration of the boy’s mental health over four years of incarceration and advice from medical staff on the island. Australian Federal Court documents confirm that he tried to kill himself by swallowing pills and strangling himself with a curtain.

Over the last five years, it has become clear that however politicians justify deterrence, the effect is still the same. Australia’s offshore detention system has become synonymous with abuse and is a humanitarian disaster while costing more than $3 billion since 2012. Children have been abused; women have been raped; the most desperate have set themselves on fire; and there have been numerous deaths, including the widely publicized murder of an Iranian asylum-seeker, Reza Berati, who was killed by a detention center security guard in February 2014.

Despite the clear human cost of detention, Australia’s two major parties refuse to heed calls for more humanitarian policies. Politicians argue that compassionate border control policies reward smugglers, encourage boat arrivals, and cause deaths at sea. What they don’t tell the Australian people is that offshore detention of asylum-seekers was always meant to be short term and was supposed to complement the establishment of viable alternatives to getting on boats. The centers were reopened in 2012 on the advice of an expert panel, which recommended that offshore processing would only work in coordination with a comprehensive regional cooperation framework.

Instead, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Liberal government dismantled regional protection agreements, announcing that asylum-seekers who registered with the United Nations in Indonesia after July 2014 would no longer be eligible for resettlement in Australia. By the end of December 2016, there were a total of 14,405 refugees and asylum-seekers stranded on Australia’s doorstep, awaiting resettlement. There are close to 150,000 refugees and asylum-seekers registered in Malaysia with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and almost 600,000 people of concern in Thailand. While the entire UNHCR budget for Southeast Asia in 2018 is approximately $325 million, Australia spends more than $750 million per year to keep just over 2,000 asylum-seekers in offshore detention centers. Meanwhile, Dutton has publicly floated the idea of organizing a special refugee intake of “persecuted” white South African farmers.

As Australia withdraws from its resettlement obligations in the region, it has become clear that the purpose of stopping the boats is not to save lives at sea but to shift Australia’s responsibility for protecting asylum seekers to other countries. Deterrence does not save lives; it only stops people from drowning in waters near Australia. Hundreds of refugees who have been offered temporary protection visas now live on Manus Island and Nauru, where they have complained of violence at the hands of locals. While refugees struggle to live in the island communities, the impoverished local people are also forced to accommodate them.

In January 2016, a young African refugee woman on Nauru was raped while unconscious and suffering from an epileptic fit. She fell pregnant as a result of the rape. Despite her circumstances, Dutton’s immigration department refused to bring the woman to Australia for an abortion, even though abortion was illegal in Nauru. Instead, he transferred the woman to Papua New Guinea, where abortion is neither safe nor legal.

Nauru is an island republic of 10,000 people; Manus Island’s population is 50,000. Both islands have high unemployment, limited resources and health facilities, and are dependent on Australian aid. Long-term settlement of refugees in Nauru and Manus Island is unlikely and unsustainable. Nevertheless, the Australian government’s stance on resettlement remains the same: Anyone attempting to enter Australia by boat without a visa will never be settled in the country. The only other realistic solution is third-country resettlement of the refugees. But Australia has achieved little in this regard since the centers were reopened in 2012.

In 2014, Australia and Cambodia reached an approximately $48 million deal to transfer refugees from Nauru and Manus Island. Only seven refugees have taken up the offer. Four of them left Cambodia within a year. New Zealand offered to resettle 150 refugees, but the Australian government rejected the offer, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull saying, “Settlement in a country like New Zealand would be used by the people smugglers as a marketing opportunity.”

Yet in November 2016, Australia negotiated a deal in which the United States agreed to resettle up to 1,250 refugees from Manus Island and Nauru. In return for Washington’s offer, Canberra agreed to resettle an unspecified number of Central American refugees. Thus far, the U.S. government has resettled 139 refugees from Nauru and Manus. But the future of the arrangement remains uncertain with U.S. President Donald Trump famously panning it as a “dumb deal.” And as Turnbull advised Trump in a leaked phone transcript, the United States is ultimately not obliged to resettle “any” of the refugees. Even if the deal is successfully completed, approximately 800 refugees and asylum-seekers will remain on Manus Island and Nauru.

Australia’s leaders know that they cannot continue their policy of offshore cruelty indefinitely. Any viable resolution will have to ensure third-country resettlement and permanent protection for asylum-seekers not admitted to Australia. Thus far, the Australian government has proved it is unable to provide adequate care for people seeking protection. And as much as Canberra might wish for a friendly future relationship between refugees and the indigenous communities of Manus Island and Nauru, the fact is that leaving refugees in these dire circumstances will only result in more harm and more deaths. Unfortunately, it appears that the Australian government is willing to risk the loss of a few lives in order to maintain the illusion of safe borders.

Mark Isaacs is the author of The Undesirables: Inside Nauru and Nauru Burning: An Uprising and Its Aftermath. He worked in the Nauru detention center from September 2012 to July 2013 as an employee of the Salvation Army, and he was commissioned by the Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin to visit Manus Island in November 2017 as part of an anthology for the “State of Refugees” project.