Australia’s Draconian Refugee Policy Comes Home to Roost

The government has gone to great lengths to keep asylum-seekers from its shores. Now it might have to accept some of them after all.

Members of the environmental group Greenpeace hold up a sign calling for Australia to allow refugee children to stay in the country in Sydney on February 14, 2016, after a hospital in Brisbane refused to send an asylum-seeker baby back to detention on Nauru.
Members of the environmental group Greenpeace hold up a sign calling for Australia to allow refugee children to stay in the country in Sydney on February 14, 2016, after a hospital in Brisbane refused to send an asylum-seeker baby back to detention on Nauru. (PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

Pressure is mounting on the Australian government to safely resettle the asylum-seekers and refugees currently held in immigration detention centers in the South Pacific, on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru.

Since September 2012, Australian governments—of both the traditionally center-left Labor Party and the center-right Liberal Party—have implemented so-called deterrence policies to prevent people seeking asylum by boat from ever reaching Australia. Instead, asylum-seekers are either transferred to offshore detention centers or forcibly returned to their point of departure before they can lodge an asylum claim.

However, after six years and with a federal election imminent, the newly arrived Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his faltering minority government are facing increasing and heavy criticism for the state of the offshore detention centers. Morrison should be all too familiar with the appalling conditions, having served as minister for immigration and border protection from September 2013 to December 2014.

This September, the deteriorating physical and mental health of refugee children and their families on Nauru led the Australian Medical Association to describe the situation there as a “humanitarian emergency” and to call upon the government to urgently transfer families to Australia.

Most horrifying of all the physical and psychological ailments is the emergence of a severe trauma-related mental disorder known as resignation syndrome in children on Nauru. According to Louise Newman, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Melbourne and the director of the Centre for Women’s Mental Health at the city’s Royal Women’s Hospital, the most serious stage of the disorder is when the child enters a state of profound withdrawal and is unconscious or in a comatose state.

“They are unresponsive, even to pain,” she wrote. “They appear floppy, without normal reflexes, and require total care, including feeding and intravenous fluids as they risk kidney failure and death from complications of immobility, malnutrition and dehydration. This is a life-threatening condition needing high level medical care.”

What makes the urgent treatment of the syndrome an emergency is that various Australian and international health bodies have declared health facilities on Nauru inadequate to treat the children. Even worse, Nauruan and foreign-contracted doctors working there have been accused of threatening to report the families of sick children to the police if the families bring their children back to the hospital.

Although these children have an urgent need for medical attention, they face barriers to accessing that care from both the Nauruan and Australian governments. In the fiscal year ending in June, the Guardian reported, the Australian government spent more than 275,000 Australian dollars (about $200,000) in legal expenses to challenge requests for urgent medical transfers of asylum-seekers and refugees from Nauru and Manus Island. In the first quarter of the current fiscal year, moreover, the Australian Department of Home Affairs spent about 480,000 Australian dollars (about $350,000) in legal fees responding to court applications for urgent medical transfers.

In September, the Nauruan government refused permission for Australian authorities to send an air ambulance to Nauru for a court-ordered medical transfer. At an urgent federal court hearing in Australia, the judge was told the refusal came from the Nauruan secretary for multicultural affairs, Barina Waqa, who was “just not convinced” it was a medical emergency. Nevertheless, some children have been transferred off the island. The latest reports suggest there are now just 17 children remaining on Nauru.

As the offshore detention regime crumbles from within, it is clear the Australian government is having trouble controlling the increasingly erratic Nauruan administration to which it has subcontracted its refugee problem. On Oct. 5, the Nauruan government instructed Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF) to cease its mental health activities on the island within 24 hours, without any assurances that alternative medical care had been arranged and despite a physical and mental health crisis in the country among the refugee and asylum-seeker population. “It was clear to us that our patients’ health and continuity of care was of little concern to the health authority during this process,” said Marc Biot, MSF’s director of operations.

A week later, MSF called for the immediate evacuation of all asylum-seekers and refugees from the island. The Nauruan government is likely being so rebellious precisely because it can sense that its largest source of finance and employment—detaining desperate refugees on Australia’s behalf—for the past six years is coming to an end.

All of this coincides with a particularly vulnerable government in Canberra—a semipermanent alliance, known as the Coalition, uniting the center-right Liberals and the agrarian-right Nationals—that is desperately trying to hold on to power. The right-wing faction of the Liberal Party removed the moderate Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull from power on Aug. 23 despite no clear evidence to suggest a more conservative leadership would bring success in the next election.

Turnbull’s subsequent resignation from Parliament caused a by-election in his Sydney constituency of Wentworth. The Liberal Party lost Wentworth—it was the first time it or its predecessor parties had lost an election there in the seat’s 117-year history—to an independent, Kerryn Phelps, who vowed to make transferring refugee children off Nauru one of her first priorities. This loss forced the Coalition into a minority government that relies on the support of independents or minor parties by ending its already slender one-seat majority in the House of Representatives. A general election now seems imminent.

Meanwhile, as children detained on Nauru succumb to resignation syndrome, the Australian government is suffering from resignation itself. The indefinite detention of refugees on Nauru is not sustainable. It never was. Just as Australia’s previous detention regime on Nauru ended in 2008 due to overwhelming public revulsion, this regime, too, will end with the lingering question: “How did we let this happen?”

During the by-election, when the conditions on Nauru and Manus were hotly debated, Prime Minister Morrison suggested the government would reconsider New Zealand’s long-standing offer to accept 150 refugees each year from Nauru and Manus Island. (New Zealand first offered such a deal to a Labor government in 2013. In 2016, then-Prime Minister Turnbull rejected another offer from New Zealand, claiming, “Settlement in a country like New Zealand would be used by the people smugglers as a marketing opportunity.”)

Morrison now claims that settlement of refugees in New Zealand could be accepted as long as Parliament passed a stalled bill that would ban any transferred people from ever coming to Australia. Under such a deal, it is unclear what would happen to the men detained on Manus Island or the families who have been split between Australia and Manus or Nauru—according to the Refugee Council of Australia, as of October, there are 15 such split nuclear families.

However, just as the two major parties in opposition, Labor and the Greens, appeared willing to negotiate such a deal, Morrison distanced himself from the idea. The hard-line home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, fresh from losing a battle for the Liberal Party leadership to Morrison, then attacked the deal suggesting it was a risk to national security.

His backtracking isn’t a huge surprise. Morrison has in the past refused to transfer all children off Nauru, claiming that providing the children with swift medical care in Australia or another country would provide other refugees with an incentive to seek asylum by boat in Australia. He said so despite admitting to the Australian Human Rights Commission that detaining adults and children in offshore detention centers was not necessary to deter boats from coming to Australia. At the time, Morrison said that the only necessary deterrent was to turn boats around and return them to their point of departure.

Morrison’s policy today is deeply self-contradictory. He is simultaneously trying to show compassion for the children and refusing to bring them to Australia for medical treatment. He claimed in an interview that he has cried “on his knees” over the plight of children on Nauru. He also proudly displays on his desk a metal Asian fishing boat with the words: “I stopped these.”

It appears that mounting public pressure on his government is now having some effect. On Nov. 1, the Morrison administration announced plans to have all children of asylum-seekers still on Nauru relocated to Australia by the end of the year; some families would be split as a result.

And the kids won’t necessarily be safe once they are transferred to the domestic detention center system in Australia. In 2014, the Australian Human Rights Commission published its grim findings from “The National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.” Two statistics that stick out: “34 percent of children detained in Australia and Christmas Island have a mental health disorder of such severity that they require psychiatric support.” Furthermore, “Over a 15 month period from 2013-2014, there were 128 incidents of self-harm amongst children. During this same period there were 27 incidents of voluntary starvation involving children.”

Morrison, an evangelical Christian, has shown a capacity for empathy when it comes to victims of child abuse. He apologized publicly in October on behalf of the Australian state for failing and abandoning thousands of victims of child sex abuse, often in religious institutions. “To the children we failed, sorry. To the parents whose trust was betrayed and who have struggled to pick up the pieces, sorry. … To the whistleblowers who we did not listen to, sorry,” he declared. “In years to come, people will learn of your lives. They will be appalled by the suffering. They will be shocked by the cruelty.”

Morrison doesn’t appear to have the courage to say it, but there is a high likelihood a future Australian prime minister will stand before Parliament and make a very similar apology to the tortured generation on Nauru and Manus Island.

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.