This article was first published in Forbes, 1 November 2017
Along with the United States and Canada, Australia has proudly resettled tens of thousands of refugees since World War II. Yet in recent years, Australia has adopted a radically harsh approach to those asylum seekers who have traveled by boat to the country’s northern coastline and sought to claim refugee status.
The Australian government detains asylum seekers in "offshore processing" centers on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. These centers first operated from 2001 to 2008, but eventually, after years of controversy, detainees were brought to Australia. Then, between 2009 and 2013, the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia increased and the offshore detention centers were re-opened. This time, the Australian government took its hardline approach one step further -- from July 2013 those asylum seekers who were intercepted at sea would be detained on the remote Pacific islands and, if found to be refugees, would be settled there too, never to be granted a new life in Australia.
This "offshore" policy was designed to deter other asylum seekers from making the boat journey to Australia -- to “stop the boats” as the government describes it. Yet it has done nothing to address the protection needs of the asylum seekers themselves. Among those detained on Nauru and Manus are stateless Rohingya who fled ethnic persecution in Myanmar, and Syrians who fled the bloody war in their country.
Australia’s far-flung detention centers have made international headlines and been repeatedly condemned by United Nations treaty bodies and the UN refugee agency UNHCR. In 2015 the UN Committee against Torture reported that lengthy confinement in harsh physical conditions -- lacking privacy or relief from the tropical rain or heat -- have combined with uncertainty about the future to create "serious physical and mental pain and suffering" for asylum seekers. UNHCR has described the situation on Nauru and Manus as "inhumane." In the four years since 2013, some asylum seekers and refugees have been raped or beaten, and eight men have died. Many others face permanent separation from their partners and children in Australia.
Earlier this month, Australia was elected unopposed to the UN Human Rights Council. On the same day, Australia appeared before the UN Human Rights Committee, which raised serious concerns about the fate of Australia’s offshore detainees, stressing that "Australia had very little to be proud of."
"Detaining some to deter others," it noted, "was a very difficult proposition" to understand.
Detention center set to close
Now this week, on October 31, the detention center on Manus will be closed. Of the more than 600 men who remain there, most have been found to be refugees, and according to Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection, they can move to alternative accommodation in the local community and settle in Papua New Guinea.
Yet that move to less secure quarters risks further danger. There have been frequent reports of asylum seekers and refugees being assaulted, violently robbed, or harassed by locals on the Island.
The men have been warned that the detention center’s power, water and sewerage will be turned off. The external fence will come down, and the facility -- a former military base -- will be handed back to Papua New Guinea. But as Rohingyan refugee Imran Mohammad told Australia’s ABC radio, the men fear for their safety outside. And as the center shuts down around them, they are refusing to move. UNHCR has now warned of an impending "humanitarian crisis" on Manus Island, in which Australia’s withdrawal of essential services, combined with a lack of proper planning or long-term solutions, "has increased an already critical risk of instability and harm."
Australia’s Minister for Immigration has described the center’s closure as the end of "a sad chapter." Yet this policy of offshore processing and settlement was deeply flawed from the beginning.
In 2014, UNHCR warned that settling a large group of non-Melanesian refugees, including Muslims, into Papua New Guinean society "will raise formidable challenges and protection questions." At an earlier point in history, Papua New Guinea’s government declined to settle non-Melanesian refugees -- the Vietnamese "boat people" of the 1970s -- for fear of creating "an ethnic minority," which it said would lead to "immediate and long-term social problems." And at that time, the Australian government recognized that it could not expect other countries to settle refugees who were Australia’s responsibility. Four decades later, this has proved to be true.
Today, members of Papua New Guinea’s Parliament view the refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island as “an Australian issue that we took on board." The Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea held in April 2016 the center was unconstitutional, illegal and should be closed. But even with the expected closure this week, the plan for local settlement has been a failure, Papua New Guinean officials told Human Rights Watch. In recent days, the country’s Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Petrus Thomas, has said that any refugees who do not wish to settle in PNG are Australia’s responsibility.
Indeed, they remain so. And the question of whether these asylum seekers and refugees will be brought to the country is critical. But both of Australia's major political parties have endorsed the offshore policy, claiming it retains the support of the Australian public.
History shows that the Australian government once managed refugee entry without resorting to draconian practices. Now, after several years spent deterring asylum seekers through remote detention, the two major parties believe that any alternative approach would risk a political charge of being "weak on border protection."
For the men on Manus, who are facing a fearful future in Papua New Guinea, that must be a difficult proposition to understand.
Dr. Higgins' new book, "Asylum By Boat: Origins of Australia’s refugee policy" (NewSouth), has just been published.