These asylum seekers dream of a promised land, but many end up in island camps far from Australia’s pristine shores. The camps were set up by the Australian government and have been likened to prisons. Up to 700 detainees recently went on hunger strike on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea – reigniting the debate over how Canberra treats illegal immigrants.
The Australian government has come under fire from refugee activists and even the UN for its harsh policy on asylum seekers. Thousands – from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran – attempt the treacherous sea-crossing, setting sail from Indonesia but very rarely ending up in Australia.
Ex-Prime Minister Julia Gillard was the first to tighten the noose on asylum seeker policy - clamping down hard on sea-crossings and reintroducing ‘offshore processing’ in 2012. Under Australian law, anyone who arrives illegally by boat must be transferred to off-shore detention centres outside Australian jurisdiction to be ‘processed’ by a ‘third country’. In a nutshell, that legal jargon effectively takes the matter out of Australia’s hands and dumps it in the hands of two countries: Papua New Guinea and the tiny island country of Nauru. Virtually everyone who arrives is either turned back - often to Indonesia - or transferred and detained, including unaccompanied children. Legally, there is no limit to the length of time an asylum seeker may be held. According to Australia’s Human Rights Commission:
“If asylum seekers are transferred to a third country, their claims for protection will be processed under that country’s laws.”
In other words, either a ‘third party’ country [Editor’s note: Papua New Guinea or Nauru] grants asylum, or they get sent back home: scant consolidation for those who risk it all to make the trip. Whilst Papua New Guinea has approved asylum applications in the past, rights groups have raised concerns over the ultimate fate of the refugees. Papua New Guinea is already one of the world’s poorest countries where, according to Amnesty, up to 50% of women have been raped.
Manus Island has resurrected the hellish debate over Canberra’s asylum policies. The camp is already infamous: last year, riots broke out when inmates were told their only settlement option was Papua New Guinea. And last week, a hunger strike that lasted more than two weeks finally ended. A handful of people stitched their mouths while at least four swallowed razor blades.
"The government in Canberra wants to do its best to put refugees off from reaching the country"
In 2012, the government radically changed its policies. They minimized the rights to which asylum seekers trying to reach Australian soil were entitled. The government in Canberra wants to do its best to put refugees off from reaching the country, including those who were already being detained in off-shore camps.
The government has established camps on uninhabited islands far away from its shores. The Manus Island camp is for single men, and Nauru Island is for women and families. Dozens of children live inhumanely on Nauru Island. The camps are nothing but a few tents, some toilets and showers. They’re located in regions where the weather is intolerable. Australia doesn’t have a security presence there, so they hire local fishermen and villagers from nearby islands to do the work for them. They don’t get training and don’t know how to interact with refugees. They don’t know what to do if violence breaks out in the camps. One of the most famous cases is that of Reza Barati: he was an Iranian asylum seeker whose throat was slashed in Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea [Editor’s note: two guards were charged with Barati’s murder last August].
In some cases they have cut off the water or reduced the number of meals handed out to detainees as punishment [Editor’s note: Canberra’s new immigration minister has strongly denied such reports, calling it “irresponsible reporting”]. I believe Australian officials are lying about the situation in the camps: the Australian ambassador in Iran claimed that there are doctors and psychologists, but that’s totally baseless. Guards subject some asylum seekers to violence and threats of rape [According to The Guardian, a Papua New Guinea guard told an asylum seeker he would be “raped and killed” if he moved into the community].
Amnesty International says detainees in Manus Island are subject to overcrowding, scarce water supplies, and hopelessly inadequate medical facilities. One asylum seeker reportedly asked guards to fix his shower and was told he could “go home” if he “wanted a good shower.” Our Observer says access to phones and Internet is also extremely limited:
By ‘outsourcing’ asylum seekers to be processed in off-shore camps, their link with the outside world – refugee activists and the media - has disappeared. Only a few have cell phones that they can use to send text messages or photos. The asylum seekers are the weak link in the chain of human trafficking. If the government wants to stop illegal immigration, they need to stop the traffickers themselves. That means informing asylum seekers before they make the journey. I know many Iranians who fell for fake promises of a good life and work in Australia.
After the recent outbreak of hunger strikes, new Immigration Minister Peter Dutton warned that there would be no change in Australia’s asylum policies: "The absolute resolve of me as the new minister and of the government is to make sure that for those transferees, they will never arrive in Australia. They will never be settled in Australia.”