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Nauru’s Refugee Stain: Australia’s Continued Offshore Processing Regime

The last refugee, for now, has left the small, guano-producing state of Nauru. For a decade, the Pacific Island state served as one of Australia’s offshore prisons for refugees and asylum seekers, a cruel deterrent to those daring to exercise their right to seek asylum via the sea.

Since July 2013, 3,127 people making the naval journey to Australia to seek sanctuary found themselves in carceral facilities in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, told that they would never resettle on the Australian mainland. Such persons were duly euphemised as “transitory persons” to be hurried on to third country destinations, if not returned to their country of origin, a form of vacant reasoning typical of a callous bureaucracy.

The wisdom here was that other countries would not only be more suitable for such persons, but keener candidates to pull their weight in terms of processing and accepting refugees. For the Australian Commonwealth, outsourcing responsibilities from protecting citizens to shielding vulnerable arrivals from harm, has become a matter of dark habit.

Many of those remaining refugees held on the Australian mainland are the subjects of acute care, and all await transfer to third countries such as Canada under its private sponsorship program, the United States, New Zealand or other destinations.

In the meantime, 80 remain in PNG. The situation there is marred by a fundamental legal peculiarity. In October 2017, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea found the Manus Island Centre to be both illegal and unconstitutional. (PNG, unlike Australia, has a constitution prohibiting violations of personal liberty, even for non-PNG nationals.) Its closure led to the removal of the detainees to various transition centres devoid of basic amenities, including water, electricity and medical support.

Both PNG and Australia proceeded to squabble over responsibility, despite the obvious fact that the latter exercises effective control over the facilities and those being held in them. Emilie McDonnell of Human Rights Watch deems it indisputable “that Australia bears primary responsibility for those in offshore detention under its policies and has an ongoing legal duty to find a durable solution.”

The offshore concentration camp system established and prosecuted by respective federal governments has become the envy for autocrats, populists and reactionaries the world over. Fact-finding missions have been made by European Union members states. The model is mesmerising officials in the UK. Its credentials of cruelty and suffering are beyond doubt: 14 deaths since 2012, marked by gross medical neglect, suicide and murder by overly enthusiastic guards. Spokesperson for the Refugee Action Collective, Ian Rintoul, suggested that the legacy on Nauru “will forever stain the record of both sides of Australian politics.”

The absence of any refugee inmates in Nauru’s detention facility does not herald its closure. Far from it: the Albanese government has, according to Federal Budget figures, promised to spend A$486 million this year on the facility.

The Department of Home Affairs continues to tersely state that the position of the government “on maritime smuggling and irregular maritime ventures has not changed. Any person entering Australia by boat without a valid visa will be returned or taken to a regional processing country for protection claims assessment. Unauthorised maritime arrivals will not settle in Australia.”

For anyone concerned about the welfare of such persons held in captivity, the department makes a feeble assurance: “All transitory persons in Nauru reside in community accommodation and have access to health and welfare services. Transitory persons have work rights and can operate businesses.” These people have evidently not been to the prison idyll they so praise. But not to worry, a wounded conscience could also be put to rest by the fact that there were “currently no minors under regional processing arrangements” on the island.

In Senate estimates, it was also revealed that the government would continue forking out $350 million annually to maintain the Nauru facility as a “contingency” for any future arrivals. According to a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs, the processing centre was “ready to receive and process any new unauthorised maritime arrivals, future-proofing Australia’s response to maritime people-smuggling.” And so, old canards are recycled in their staleness and counterfeit quality.

Another unsavoury aspect to this needless cost to the Australian budget is the recipient of such taxpayer largesse. The Albanese government has an ongoing contract with the US prison company, Management and Training Corporation (MTC), which is responsible for running the facilities till September 2025 at the cost of A$422 million.

MTC has a spotty resume, though it trumpets its record as a “leader in social impact.” Impact is certainly not an issue, if maladministration, wrongful death, poor medical care and a failing performance in rehabilitation count in the equation. In 2015, then Arizona governor Dough Ducey cancelled MTC’s contract after a withering state department of corrections report into a riot at Kingman prison identifying “a culture of disorganisation, disengagement and disregard for state policies.” As a 2021 lawsuit filed in the District Court of the Southern District of California pungently alleged, MTC “is a private corporation that traffics in human captivity for profit.”

The very fact that MTC Australia advertises itself as a provider of “evidence-based rehabilitation programs and other services to approximately 1,000 male inmates in Australia” begs that old question as to why they need to oversee refugees and asylum seekers in the first place. But the answer is glaringly evident: anyone daring to make the perilous journey across the seas to the world’s largest island continent are seen as presumptively criminal, trafficked by actual criminals. Such a sickness of attitude and policy continues to keep the Australian political imagination captive and defiant before law and decency.


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  1. RomeoCharlie

    What a disgrace that the Labor government continues these disgusting punitive practices. Rather than punishing those desperates seeking a better life, we should be targeting those who profit off their misery, the people smugglers. Meanwhile those who have the money fly in, overstay their visas and, because they didn’t come by boat, get a visa. Maybe that part’s not strictly true but you get the principle. Of course if Labor did show some heart Dutto and the misfits would scream blue murder, not enough of a deterrent for doing the right thing.

  2. Lyndal

    Our government continues to spend hundreds of millions on keeping innocent people in prisons or on prison islands. While Nauru may appreciate the revenue, PNG has made it clear they would prefer to have their Constittution respected. Just allowing the Biloela family to return home was a revolutionary act for the Immigration Department, it seems. This government needs to strike down its current refugee system.

  3. New England Cocky

    Australian refugee policy continues to be inhumane, disgusting and disgraceful for a country allegedly a western democracy. The best use for the Nauru facility is as the repository for the proposed NACC investigations into the corrupt practices of members of the Scummo COALition misgovernment, under the same rules and conditions suffered by legal refugees.

    This current policy of ignoring the aerial invasion of Australia by North Asian persons is another unwanted relic of the Howard too long misleading policy to suit his enormous ego.

    We say ”Free Julian Assange IMMEDIATELY” but as a nation remain silent about these poor legal refugees deliberately kept in limbo cowering to Australian xenophobia of the very best unChristian values.

  4. Baby Jewels

    Until Greens intervened, Labor only wanted to spend $500,000 per year on hundreds of thousands of homeless Australians. Yet they are spending $486,000 on an empty prison on Nauru. They are gifting $116.billion to fossil fuels and still sitting on the outrageous Stage 3 tax cuts. Let’s not even talk about $12 billion a year on negative gearing, to enrich the already rich, at the expense of the poor. How is this a left-leaning government? They voted with the Liberals multiple times in opposition on treacherous legislation and reversed none of it. They did nice things like allowing the Biloela family to stay and ended the court case against a whistleblower – but not the other two. But signed off on the Liberals’ AUKUS. Other dodgies include their removing transparency from the NACC, continuing to over-fund private schooling and underfund public schooling, the gas trigger, $11.6 billion to fossil fuels and their continued approval of new mines, but it’s their Housing Policy that has convinced me, we have yet another mindless neolliberal government.

  5. Clakka

    Paul Keating was absolutely right when he said, “There’s no such thing as a monoculture.” We wouldn’t expect the LNP to entertain that in any way. Yet we see Labor continue to ignore the rights of refugees under the UN charter, and give up on finding a better way to accommodate desperate refugees who are not able to navigate our visa system, and who for reasons of life-threatening oppression have to secretly leave their country of birth and / or domicile. It is no surprise, as even Oz cannot navigate its own deliberately opaque visa system which has been elitist at its core, and to a significant extent has operated as a feed-in to various forms of indentured slavery by various Oz industries.

    It appears to be of no consequence to the fascistic cretins who inhabit Oz’s immigration dept, and Home Affairs that it takes courage, determination and skill for those desperate refugees to undertake their journeys of escape – Oz bureaucracy and unimaginative political masters with racist and xenophobic underpinnings fail to put to good use these demonstrable refugee qualities and willingness, whilst opting for financial gouging of immigrants and otherwise sufficing for the status quo of substantial Oz whinging-for-more entitlement and bloated lassitude.

    The failure of diplomacy and negotiation across jurisdictions to encourage humane policies, and enforce the frameworks of international law and local laws against criminality involved in people smuggling and extortion is not resolved by the perpetuation of divisive and cruel oppression and tortures involved in our refugee detention system. Rather than enrichment of cultural and intellectual diversity, liberty and freedom of expression, it generates fear, compliant silence through paranoia, racism and xenophobia – a system approaching selective eugenics. And they dare to squander Oz taxpayer’s money to do it.

    Is this the ‘rules-based order’?

  6. wam

    All my rabbottians believe the media hype that the rabbott stopped the boats.
    ‘The New York Times reported that more than 600 asylum seekers had died en route to Australian territory between 2009 and 2013. According to the Morrison government in 2019, more than 50,000 people had arrived by boat and at least 1,200 people drowned at sea during the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years.’ So where did you find the number 3127????
    Wow, Baby, A gavian rave, completely in step with Epicurus’ ‘enough is never enough’. At least you can be satisfied with not voting for the Labor Government.

  7. Max Gross

    That stain will never wash out

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