Australia outsources asylum to Pacific island nations ... but at what cost?
2019-06-01 13:46:31 -
World News

By Jo Ahern


According to the Refugee Council of Australia, 4,177 people seeking asylum in Australia have been sent to either Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) or to the Pacific nation of Nauru as part of the Australian government’s regional offshore processing arrangements since August 2012.


Some 3,127 people were sent to these remote locations due to a change in Australian government policy — that people who arrived by boat would never be resettled in Australia. The number of asylum seekers detained on Manus Island and Nauru peaked in 2014 (1,353 men and 1,233 women, children and families, respectively).


With the foundations of this policy laid in the early 2000s, in 2008 Australia’s then newly elected Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, overturned the former government’s controversial ‘Pacific Solution’, which saw asylum seekers transferred to Nauru in response to the rising number of people seeking asylum.


In 2010, under pressure from an ongoing and increasingly antagonistic media and the tough border protection policies the Federal Opposition, Australia’s first woman prime minister Julia Gillard announced she had begun discussions to establish a regional processing centre to receive and process asylum seekers who arrived by boat.


Referred to as ‘unauthorised maritime arrivals’, these were men, women and children who left war-torn countries to make the dangerous journey from Indonesia to Australia in tiny, overcrowded and unsafe vessels. Many died at sea, and this tragic and politically charged time was used effectively to destroy Julia Gillard’s credibility and prime ministership.


In 2013, the Labor Party re-elected Kevin Rudd as leader and Australian prime minister. On 19 July that year, Rudd announced that Australia had entered a regional resettlement programme with PNG to settle asylum seekers who arrived by boat. A similar agreement was reached with Nauru.


In crisis, the Labor Party lost government in September 2013 and the Liberal and National parties formed a coalition led by prime minister Tony Abbott. His administration continued the harsh policy of offshore processing, while immigration minister Scott Morrison (now Australian prime minister) travelled to Manus Island to deliver an “orientation message” to asylum seekers, telling them they would never be settled in Australia and should consider going home.


Many in Australia were increasingly uncomfortable with their government’s harsh stance on asylum seekers. In 2017, the tide of public and media opinion finally began to turn, and the government came under increasing pressure to reconsider its policy and approach. More than 170,000 Australians signed the #KidsoffNauru campaign led by medical, political, judicial, media, human rights and other leaders. The campaign succeeded and in February this year the last four children left Nauru to be resettled in the United States.


While many people were returned to their country of origin (the UN has condemned Australia for the forced return of an asylum seeker to Sri Lanka without assessing his claim), a total of 547 people remain on Manus Island and 359 on Nauru. Another 508 have also been granted refuge by the US and seven by Cambodia.


This policy has cost the Australian taxpayer billions of dollars in border protection, national security and the offshore management of detention centres.


People have also died in these centres. Reza Barati, a 23-year-old Iranian Kurd, was killed in a riot at the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre in February 2014. His cause of death was ‘severe head trauma’. Mental and physical illness among the remaining detention centre populations is extremely high and many people attempt suicide. Medical facilities are basically non-existent on Manus Island with neither the Manusians nor refugee/non-refugee populations able to access healthcare unless flown to PNG’s capital, Port Moresby, which is an expensive exercise and not affordable by the locals.


The impact of managing these facilities on expatriate and local staff is yet to be fully understood given the ongoing and intensely distressing circumstances they have managed over many years.


Still proclaiming it ‘stopped the boats’ leading up to Australia’s May 2019 election, the government was returned with a majority.


This election, however, was not fought and won on the basis of asylum policy because the majority of Australians now see this as our national shame.


Jo Ahern writes from Brisbane, Australia.

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