Like many others, my heart skipped a beat this week when I heard that three Coalition MPs had broken ranks on offshore detention and were calling for children and their families detained on Nauru to be brought to Australia.
The situation on Nauru is heartbreaking. Medicins Sans Frontieres, whose staff were very recently expelled from Nauru, describe the situation of asylum seekers and refugees on the island as “beyond desperate”.
As corroborated by MSF medical analysis, refugee patients exist in a vicious cycle of deep despair with many having lost the will to live. Among them, at least 78 patients seen by MSF had suicidal ideations and/or engaged in self-harm or suicidal acts. Children as young as nine have told MSF staff that they would rather die than live in a state of hopelessness on Nauru. Among the most severely ill patients are those separated from their immediate family as a result of Australia’s immigration policy.
None of this comes as a surprise. Numerous organisations have found similar things. The Nauru papers documented it. Greg Lake, who was Director of Regional Processing at the time the Nauru and Manus centres were set up and would later become Director of the Nauru facility, explained the logic of deterrence.
Deterrence is all about constructing an environment that’s worse than the thing people are fleeing from. So you have to make the situation in detention somehow worse than Syria under ISIS. And if you put it in that context, we can’t kill people, but the next best thing you can do is take away people’s hope and dignity.
When he selected who would be sent to the offshore centres, Greg Lake recalls that
My instructions (from the Minister for Immigration’s office) were to find families with children as young as possible (because we had to send a message to people smugglers that children, even young children, weren’t exempt). We couldn’t transfer children under seven, as they couldn’t be inoculated against Japanese Encephalitis or Malaria, so I had to choose children who looked young, to send a message to people smugglers.
Both major political parties argue that the offshore regime is necessary, that the people smuggling syndicates will rapidly redeploy the moment Australia signals it will welcome asylum seekers who arrive by boat. This is why the Prime Minister has opened the door to getting children and their families off Nauru but: 1) will not bring them to Australia; and 2) will not take up New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 refugees until Parliament agrees to pass a bill making it impossible for those who resettle inNew Zealand to ever come to Australia.
The ALP argue that the offshore centres were never intended to be places of indefinite detention, and that the government has failed in its key obligation to find other countries to resettle the refugees on Manus and Nauru (see https://www.alp.org.au/asylumseekers).
Yet suppose the government does find third party countries for all those on Manus and Nauru. Would that not encourage the people smugglers to start up again? They mightn’t be able to promise entry to Australia, but could easily argue that if you make your way to Australia you will end up in the USA, or New Zealand, or somewhere similar.
We need to get those children and their families off Nauru. No outcome can justify the mental disintegration of innocent human beings. We have to accept that the people-smuggling trade may well recommence if we bring those refugees to Australia. And we have to “stop the boats” not by making the lives of asylum seekers a living hell, but by creating a regional and global system that provides a clear and timely path by which people fleeing violence can settle in a country where they can rebuild their lives.