The Australian government is expected to begin the process of removing all remaining asylum seekers from the island of Nauru by the end of June, more than a decade after the offshore processing on the tiny Pacific Island was restarted.
This ends – in theory at least – one of the most willfully neglectful and cruel periods in recent Australian history.
However, the situation for refugees who were kept on Manus Island and now live in Port Moresby, on the Papua New Guinea mainland, is less clear, with more than 80 people still waiting to be resettled.
Nauru Detention: A History of Devastating Abuse and Trauma
In recent months, regular transfers of asylum seekers to hotel detention on the Australian mainland have occurred. Both the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) and Refugee Action Coalition say they expect detainees to be allowed to leave the island by the end of the month with most being granted bridging visas and the ability to look for work after leaving hotel detention.
Heidi Abdel-Raouf, the detention policy lead at the ASRC, told Guardian Australia that more than 60 people had been evacuated in the last year from Nauru, and they expected there to be zero asylum seekers on the island by June 30.
Despite this, the Albanese government has confirmed that it will maintain facilities on Nauru for offshore processing as a contingency.
The Department of Home Affairs has confirmed that this will cost a minimum of 350 million Australian dollars per year.
Described as “cruel in the extreme” by human rights groups, one of the few bipartisan approaches by both major political parties in Australia has been the pledge to “stop the boats.”
This attitude, which has often been the subject of vociferous protestation by human rights groups and lawyers, has nonetheless stayed intact – despite otherwise wildly oscillating changes in the country’s leadership.
As Human Rights Watch noted, “few other countries go to such lengths to deliberately inflict suffering on people seeking safety and freedom.”
The Howard government began offshore processing in Nauru after the Tampa crisis in 2001, which saw a Norwegian ship – the Tampa – rescue refuges bound for Australia. They were denied entry into Australian waters and instead were met with military force. Amnesty International argued that Howard “capitalized on the Tampa affair to launch one of the most aggressive responses to refugee arrivals in the world.”
The policy was ended in 2007 by the newly elected Labor government, due in part to reports of abusive conditions. However, in 2012, under immense political and media pressure from a Liberal opposition under future Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the program was restarted.
A lack of transparency and overt secrecy was commonplace, with the Nauru government refusing to allow visas to nearly any journalist, and the Australian government rarely commenting on the matter.
Tales of abuse, which were originally reported in the Nauru Files by Guardian Australia, included rape, sexual assault, other forms of violence and suicide.
Despite making up only 18 percent of the refugee population, more than half of the 2,116 reports of abuse up until 2016 involved children.
Human Rights Watch described the situation as “atrocious.”
It said that asylum seekers and refugees “routinely face neglect by health workers and other service providers who have been hired by the Australian government, as well as frequent unpunished assaults by local Nauruans. They endure unnecessary delays and at times denial of medical care, even for life-threatening conditions.”
Across Nauru and Manus Island, 12 people have lost their lives in detention.
The Forgotten People in Papua New Guinea
In 2016, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court found that detaining refugees on Manus Island – derogatorily known as Australia’s Guantanamo Bay – was unconstitutional and the facility needed to be closed. The Australian government was forced to pay AU$70 million to 1,905 detainees in a class action suit and officially absolved their responsibility in 2019, leaving Nauru as Australia’s only offshore processing location for asylum seekers arriving by boat.
An agreement between PNG and Australia said that PNG would “assume full management of regional processing services … and full responsibility for those who remain.”
Currently there are over 80 such people in Port Moresby in a variety of living conditions. Sources told The Diplomat that they are often “living in danger.”
Ian Rintoul, from the Refugee Action Coalition, said that the people still in PNG “have been cruelly ignored.”
“We have been condemning that [the housing of refugees in PNG] since they have been there, but in particular since the Labor government was elected,” Rintoul said.
“Most of the people housed in PNG are in much worse mental and physical condition than those currently housed in Nauru. We made an immediate point in the lack of transfer of these refugees.”
Scott Cosgriff, a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said Australia has the same responsibility for people it sent to PNG as to the ones it sent to Nauru.
“Across more than a decade in Nauru and PNG, the Australian Government has inflicted untold suffering upon people merely asking for safety. Evacuating Nauru is the right thing to do,” Cosgriff said.
“Anything less than the same approach in relation to PNG is a profound failure of people whose dire circumstances were caused by this policy and whose lives remain in the Australian Government’s hands.”
Like Nauru, Manus Island saw abuse and violence inflicted on the people housed there. One whistle-blower, Liz Thompson, told Australian television in 2014 that the situation on Manus was “ridiculous.”
“It’s not designed as a processing facility, it’s designed as an experiment in the active creation of horror to deter people from trying in the first place,” Thompson said at the time.
The removal of the final people housed in Nauru is a positive step from a Labor government that made a point while in opposition to not oppose any of the extreme rhetoric that the Liberal party espoused toward migrants arriving by boat.
It is a policy that has been largely mirrored in the extreme by the Conservative party in the United Kingdom, which has rejoiced in sending asylum seekers to Rwanda – a poverty-stricken nation ravaged by the ghosts of genocide. The lack of remorse across the political spectrum from Australian politicians regarding the senseless abuse and death that occurred on Nauru and Manus is testament to the legacy that they leave. With the future of more than 80 refugees in Papua New Guinea still hanging the balance, the relic that is the “Pacific solution” remains.
For human rights campaigners and lawyers like Scott Cosgriff, it is simply about taking responsibility.
“Every person sent to Nauru or PNG has lost years of their lives and been separated from loved ones because of the intentionally punitive policies of successive Australian governments,” he said.
“It’s time for the Albanese government to take responsibility and ensure every person can rebuild their lives in safety and freedom.”