Australia's 'Pacific solution' for asylum seekers - the Nauru anguish
PART TWO: 2004-2012
Pacific Media Centre, Wendy Bacon
8 August, 2012
In response to calls to reopen Nauru for processing and detention of refugees, New Matilda published this timeline by Wendy Bacon that recovers Australia's history of detaining asylum seekers on the tiny island nation. It has been republished here with permission. Part One charts the Pacific Solution up to 2003.
TIMELINE: As people pop champagne corks at the end of 2003, 35 asylum seekers, 18 of whom are in hospital, remain on hunger strike on Nauru. The Howard government is taking a hard line. Labor’s Immigration spokesperson Stephen Smith urges the government to talk to New Zealand which is reported to be prepared to take more asylum seekers.
The Immigration Department finally takes action. It distributes a letter to detainees, saying it will reassess Afghan applications after it receives an update from the UN on security in Afghanistan.
The hunger strikers write to the government saying they will end the protest if they are assured their claims will be reviewed fairly using an interpreter they trust. UNHCR says it expects some claimants, who were initially refused, will be recognised as refugees.
After receiving assurance that their cases will be reviewed, the hunger strikers end their protest. The story of the strike is further explored in Freedom or Death, a documentary by Elliot Spencer.
Child psychiatrist Louise Newman says she is particularly concerned about the damaging effect of detention on babies and young children. She describes it as a form of child abuse.
The federal government admits the Nauru detention centre is hurting the tiny nation’s health system and agrees to increase resources.
The Brotherhood of St Lawrence welcomes the end of the strike but says that Australia must find a better solution than Nauru for asylum seekers.
The federal government argues in the Victorian Supreme court that the actions of Australian personnel are valid because the Nauruan government is detaining asylum seekers on Nauru, not the Australian government. When on Nauru, the government claims, Australian officers become local Nauruan police subject to Nauruan law. Julian Burnside QC, acting for the detainees, rejects this argument.
The Victorian Supreme Court rules that the legal bid to free the detainees on Nauru can proceed.
Refugee advocate group, A Just Australia, reports that 93 children are still on Nauru.
After review by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly half the remaining 22 Tampa asylum seekers on Nauru are recognised as refugees. A UNHCR spokeswoman says cases of 13 other Afghans are still being considered. A Just Australia welcomes decision but says it is a tragedy the Afghans were forced to wait 30 months for the decision.
After a court challenge to his detention, the last detainee on Manus Island, Palestinian Aladdin Sisalem, is granted an Australian visa.
More than 80 children remain in detention on Nauru.
The Australian Human Rights Commission publishes "A Last Resort?", an inquiry into children in detention. It disagrees with the government’s decision to not allow it to visit Nauru or PNG and is particularly concerned that children found to be refugees are still detained. This increases the likelihood of Article 37(b) of the Convention for the Rights of Children — that any child should be detained only as a last resort and for the shortest possible appropriate time — being broken.
Under intense pressure, the Federal Government softens its stance on detainees held in Australia, but nothing changes for the 54 asylum seekers on Nauru. "They’re just feeling desperately alone, cut off, traumatised and depressed," Susan Metcalfe, a University of New England researcher, tells The Age. "They’re in a camp comprised totally of other depressed people. They have nowhere to turn."
United Nations official Neil Wright urges Australia to find a humanitarian solution for 54 asylum seekers on Nauru, most of whom have been detained for more than three years. Most of those remaining have been denied refugee status but refuse to return to their home countries of Iraq or Afghanistan.
Refugee advocates slam a secret deal between Australia and Afghanistan which allows Afghani asylum seekers held in immigration detention to be forcibly deported to their homeland. Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul says the idea that Afghanistan was safe for asylum seekers is ridiculous.
"After persecution in their homeland, Afghans have been persecuted by the Australian government … They have tried everything except showing compassion and providing permanent protection to these refugees. The government is using them as a political football."
The government confirms that nine asylum seekers who have been on Nauru for three years will be allowed to settle in Australa but states that this is not a softening of government policy.
The last children in Nauru are given permission to settle with their families in Australia on temporary protection visas.
The case of Hazaran Mahammad Ruhani, who originally applied for a Nauruan court order that he was being illegally detained, is before the High Court of Australia. By now Ruhani has been given permission to settle in Australia. In a 4-1 decision, the Court upholds the main thrust of the Pacific Solution and finds that although it is not a party to the Refugee Convention, Nauru can validly detain asylum seekers on Australia’s behalf by issuing special visas under its own immigration law that restrict asylum seekers to detention centres on the island.
The then High Court judge Michael Kirby disagrees, finding that using immigration laws to deprive asylum seekers, taken to Nauru against their will, of their liberty was unlawful."There may be other similar arrangements in the history of population movements of recent times. However, if any exist like the present case, I do not know of them and none were suggested to this Court". Following this decision, the earlier proceedings launched in January 2004 are not pursued.
Refugee advocates claim 27 detainees on Nauru are suffering from depression and at least one is under constant surveillance following an attempt to harm himself. Shadow immigration minister Tony Burke says they should be moved to Australia so they can receive appropriate health care.
PM Howard says all but two of remaining detainees on Nauru will be brought to Australia. Half of these detainees will be allowed to settle in Australia, the rest will be further detained In Australia. He declares the Pacific Solution an "outstanding success" and that the centres will kept open. Labor says this move is an admission that the policy has failed. Keeping the centres open will cost $36 million a year.
A decision by the Australian government to grant asylum to 42 West Papuans arriving by boat is criticised by the Indonesian government as demonstrating double standards.
Immigration minister Amanda Vanstone announces an extension to the Pacific Solution by which any people arriving by boat will be shipped to Nauru, Manus Island or Christmas Island, where they will stay until their visa applications have been processed and a place found for them overseas. Amnesty International and other refugee advocate groups call the policy a "breach of Australia’s obligations under the International Refugee Convention".
David Manne, co-ordinator of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre tells ABC radio "If people are dragged off to Nauru, they’ll be subject to a system of fundamental unfairness where they’ll completely be denied access to due legal processes in Australia".
The Edmund Rice Centre publishes its report "Deported to Danger", an inquiry into cases of people found not to be refugees who are returned to countries of origin. They find that authorities took a reckless view of the dangers and discrimination faced by people in countries to which they returned. The report documents the perils they face including living in fear of being killed, arrested, imprisoned or tortured.
Four Afghans returned from Nauru tell stories of depression, physical and psychiatric illness, isolation and frustration at the flawed translations of UNHCR. One reports when they asked for a lawyer, UNHCR staff said "In Nauru you do not have that facility. If you were in Australian camp then you could demand for it". The Afghans also report subtle threats from the guards about injections for those unwilling to go back, the appalling physical conditions and the heat endured for extended periods without sufficient clean water, electricity or air conditioning.
One man explained why he decided to leave "voluntarily" even though he expected to face danger: "This detention centre is a hell-hole. There was a lot of persecution by ACM (Australian Correctional Management). I felt I had no hope of freedom ever and I felt I would never see my wife and children again. I was very depressed. I was afraid I would lose my mind if I stayed any longer. I felt it was better to lose my life trying to reach my family than to lose my life in that detention centre".
Researcher Sue Metcalfe returns from two months on Nauru and reports that since a new Nauruan government was elected, two remaining detainees can move around the island during the day but the main problem is now the length of detention. The men who have been held for more than four and a half years to determine whether they are "genuine" refugees, but the government has decided that they must be settled elsewhere because they have not passed secret security tests.
Mohammed Sagar, the last remaining Iraqi refugee on Nauru, is accepted by a Scandinavian country.
The costs of Nauru, where the two men remain, have blown out to $1 million a day.
Greens Senator Kerry Nettle calls for the immediate closure of Nauru.
Muhammad Faisal, one of the two men on Nauru for five years, tells the Age his life is a living hell. He suffers from high anxiety and poor vision, takes medication three times a day, and recently, in an act of desperation, tried to take his life and was moved to a hospital in Australia.
The Age publishes an interview with Mahommed Sagar who is now in Sweden. "I felt that my soul and my body are two different things," he says. "Other feelings were also surrounding the space. Wonders of what my new life would look like, proud of defeating a government that failed to make others believe its lies, sad for the psychological damage due to the prolonged oppression, and many other bitter feelings."
Oxfam and A Just Australia release a report, "A Price Too High: Australia’s Approach to Asylum Seekers" that finds the Pacific Solution has cost the Australian taxpayer more than $1 billion over five years and more than $500,000 per person processed, seven times more than on the mainland. It has also failed to reduce the number of people arriving.
Amnesty International reports that given Australia funds detention on Nauru, detainees should be entitled to the same level of respect for their human rights as Australians. it expresses concerns about lack of access to lawyers, friends, family and religious clergy.
Australia sends 83 Sri Lankan asylum seekers intercepted on the way from Indonesia to Nauru. "We are committed to sending the strongest possible message of deterrence to people who would engage in the dangerous and unlawful activity of people smuggling," says immigration minister Kevin Andrews.
The Rudd labor government is elected.
81 Sri Lankan and Burmese refugees held on Nauru will be allowed to settle in Australia. 16 recent Indonesian boat arrivals will be repatriated to home island of Roti.
A new Government in Nauru says it is worried about the loss of funds from its economy if the scheme is discontinued.
The final 21 Sri Lankan refugees arrive in Australia, leaving the detention camp empty. This marks the end of the "Pacific Solution". Of more than 1200 detainees, most have been found to be refugees, often after three years in detention. Some of those who returned to their countries still claim they were refugees.
David Manne, co-ordinator of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, welcomes the closure but says there are three waves of anguish: the first is trauma that forces people to become refugees, the second is the period in detention and the third are the debilitating nightmares and anxiety attacks being experienced by some after detention.
Labor begins to expand facilities on Christmas Island.
The minister for immigration, Chris Evans, describes the Pacific Solution as a "cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful exercise". UN High Commission for Refugees’ Richard Towles welcomes end of the policy. "Many bona fide refugees caught by the policy spent long periods of isolation, mental hardship and uncertainty — and prolonged separation from their families," he says.
Kevin Rudd is replaced as prime minister by Julia Gillard.
The Edmund Rice Centre reports at least nine Afghan asylum seekers have been killed in Afghanistan after being rejected by Australia. Director Phil Glendinning releases a documentary in which he tracks a number of rejected asylum seekers and finds three children have died.
During the 2010 election campaign, Tony Abbott vows to restart the Pacific Solution policy and returns to John Howard’s border protection rhetoric.
"The problem is that under Mr Rudd we do not decide who comes to our country and the circumstances under which they come," Abbott told reporters. "Under Mr Howard we did."
The last two Iraqis to be detained on Nauru applied to the Federal Court to have access to the security assessments. The court upholds the right of Australia’s security agency ASIO to keep assessments secret. Mohammed Sagar is now living in Sweden. Muhammad Faisal lives in Australia. ASIO has by now withdrawn its negative assessment of him.
Despite human rights and development group opposition, PM Julia Gillard wants to reopen Manus Island. Opposition leader Tony Abbott urges the government to "send a message" to people smugglers by reopening Nauru which he says his shadow minister Scott Morrison has visited and found to be in good condition.
Liberal senator Simon Birmingham tells Sky News that the detention centre on Nauru had been "overseen and approved" by the UNHCR, and the Nauruan government continues to claim that the camps operated "under the auspices of UNHCR". A UNHCR spokesman says "UNHCR was not involved and, indeed, distanced itself from any role in overseeing or managing the processing facilities on Nauru under the Pacific Solution. Recent media reports that the centre on Nauru was approved by and run under the auspices of the UN are factually incorrect". It describes the policy as "deeply problematic".
Abbott will accept no refugee proposal that does not involve re-opening Nauru. In order to get support for the Malaysian solution which involves sending boat arrivals to Malaysia in return for other refugees, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen says that he will inquire into reopening Nauru. Julia Gillard also says she will consider reopening Nauru.
The Sydney Morning Herald reports that it understands the government will canvass reopening Nauru in the absence of the Malaysia deal being passed by parliament, in the outside hope it may work to stop an increasing number of boats arriving at Christmas Island but also to prove Abbott wrong and put further pressure him over Malaysia.
Government sources deny this decision has been discussed but agree it is likely to be considered.The Immigration Department advised the government and the opposition in 2011 that the Howard’s government’s Pacific Solution, which Labor scrapped, would not work again.
Oakeshott’s private members bill which includes the Nauru solution as well as Malaysia passes the House of Representatives. It fails to pass the Senate. The Greens and the Coalition oppose the bill.
Human rights lawyer Julian Burnside tells ABC’s Triple J and Fairfax that asylum seekers should be processed in Indonesia in order to prevent more deaths among those trying to reach Australia by boat. He said people who are found to be refugees should be given tickets allowing them to eventually settle in Australia so long as don’t get on a boat. Burnside says the Malaysia and Nauru solutions will not curb deaths.
Abbott tells Gillard to get cracking over parliament’s winter break in reopening Nauru and Manus Island detention centres
Nauru remains closed.
Two thirds of the 1547 people processed on Manus Island and Nauru were eventually resettled in Australia and New Zealand. A small number went to Scandinavia and Canada. The remaining third returned, under pressure, to their countries of origin. Some of these were killed and many others found conditions were too unstable and unsafe for them to remain and made their way to other countries.
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