Transporting refugees a world policy… Australia, Britain, Denmark, Israel

Turn back racism, not boats

Australia’s off-shore detention centres on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, and the island of Nauru almost 5000 km to the northeast, were tropical hell holes where asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat were incarcerated as a warning to others not to try and enter Australia by sea.

By Derek Mortimer, Australia

In the 2001 federal election campaign the then Liberal Party Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, infamously declared, ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’

Detention centre inmates were held under appalling conditions, some went mad, some were murdered, others were assaulted by guards, and many sank into despair and self-harm.

Thirteen people died in the centres, mainly from infectious diseases. The centres were established in 2001 on the pretext of saving the lives of refugees trying to reach Australia in dangerously overcrowded boats, many of which sank, resulting in the loss of an estimated 1200 lives. In reality, incarceration was used by Australian governments as a brutal deterrent to thousands fleeing persecution. The message was clear, life in Australia will be worse than the persecution they were fleeing.

The centres are now closed, but that does not mean that asylum seekers are free to settle in Australia; they live restricted lives in communities on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, Nauru and mainland Australia, while the government seeks other countries that will accept them. Deals have been struck with both the US and New Zealand to take limited numbers.

Eight former off-shore detainees who had been moved to the mainland for medical reasons were recently released into the community after being detained in the Park Hotel, Melbourne, for as long as nine years.

The Park Hotel gained international attention in January when Serbian tennis champion Novak Djokovic was briefly detained there in January for entering the country without a Covid-19 vaccination for the Australian Open.

Offshore detention was introduced in 2001, while Manus and Nauru were closed in 2008 and reopened in 2012, to be finally closed in 2021.

Over 2600 people were detained in Nauru and Manus Island between September 2001 and February 2008. In January 2014, the figure peaked on Manus Island, with 1,353 detained. In Nauru, the numbers peaked at 1,233 people in August 2014.

The vast majority were men, but women and children were also locked up, condemned to wait years for their fate to be decided. They lived under physical and psychological torture.

With the closure of Manus Island and Nauru centres, some asylum seekers were allowed to move into the communities on Manus, mainland Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Australia where around 1,486 are in various detention facilities. A small number have been accepted as migrants to the US and New Zealand in deals which has taken years to implement.

There are around 111 people on Nauru, and 105 in PNG. Those held in Australia are there because of the relentless campaigning against offshore detention, although they have not won permanent visas.

People who have been transferred from PNG and Nauru to Australia are designated as “transitory persons.” They are not permitted to resettle in Australia. Most have been released on temporary departure bridging visas and have the right to work, and healthcare, but do not have access to unemployment support or the right to study and other benefits of citizenship. This has placed an enormous strain on the refugee community charities. Many refugees have been separated from families for almost nine years.

A small number are living in the community in what is called “community detention.” They do not have the right to work, they are required to live in housing stipulated by the government, and they are not allowed to travel without permission. They get an allowance of about two-thirds of unemployment support.

Australia’s Prime Minister, the Pentecostal church member, Scot Morrison, frequently repeats the mantra, ‘No one who comes to this country by boat will ever be allowed to settle in Australia.

Ian Rintoul, of Refugee Action Coalition, said ‘RAC wants all asylum seekers welcomed in the Australian community, with permanent visas.

The anti-asylum policy has bipartisan support. In the first week of campaigning for the May 21 national election, Labour leader Anthony Albanese on two occasions went out of his way to stress there would be no letup on the racist ‘Stop the boats’ policy if Labour wins.

We will turn boats back,’ he said.

Then later, ‘Labour’s policy is to support Operation Sovereign Borders. We support offshore processing; we support resettlement in third countries.’ He was reinforced by his deputy Richard Marles, who said, ‘Let’s be really clear; there is no difference between Labour and the government when it comes to border protection policy…Labour supports Operation Sovereign Borders and every aspect of it.

Rintoul said, ’RAC is critical of the ALP’s support for boat turn-backs and offshore detention. The bipartisan support for offshore detention has given legitimacy to the Coalition’s deliberate cruelty, which has allowed it to go on for nine years. Albanese has insisted that a Labour government will maintain Nauru as an offshore detention centre.