[Photo: Refugee Action Coalition, Sydney]

As Europe grapples with the greatest flow of refugees and migrants since the second world war, the Australian government has drawn ever fiercer criticism over its response to its own refugee crisis, in particular the policy since 2012 of ‘offshoring’ the problem by paying contractors US$312m a year to run detention centres on two fellow Commonwealth member states: the Pacific island of Nauru and Manus Island, off Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Last year, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Rea’ad al-Hussein, condemned ‘the hostility and contempt for these men, women and children that is so widespread among the country’s politicians’. The speech, to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, added that Australia’s cruel deterrence policies towards refugees and asylum-seekers had ‘set a poor benchmark for its regional neighbours’, Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre reported. A senior researcher at Amnesty International, who investigated conditions on Nauru, said: ‘Few other countries go to such lengths to deliberately inflict suffering on people seeking safety and freedom.’

A cache of more than 2,000 leaked documents from the detention centre on Nauru, published as The Nauru Files by the Guardian in August, catalogue in painful detail the assaults and sexual assaults on children and their resulting self-harm. Despite promises in April 2015 by the Australian immigration minister, Peter Dutton, that he would make Nauru a ‘safe environment’, conditions had worsened, the Guardian reported.

Paediatricians who took part in an earlier Australian Human Rights Commission study of children as young as eight held at the Wickham Point detention centre in Darwin, reported children who ‘talked openly about suicide’ at the prospect of being returned to Nauru. ‘These children, most of whom had spent months in Nauru, are among the most traumatised we have ever seen in our 50 years of combined professional experience,” said Prof Elizabeth Elliott.

A new study released in October by the human rights organisation Amnesty International calls the ‘punitive’ deterrence policy of processing refugees and asylum-seekers on Nauru ‘a deliberate and systematic regime of neglect and cruelty’. The report, Island of Despair: Australia’s ‘processing of refugees’, says: ‘On Nauru, the Australian government runs an open-air prison designed to inflict as much suffering as necessary to stop some of the world’s most vulnerable people from trying to find safety in Australia.’

It is not just the children who have reached the extremes of despair. Omid, an Iranian man who had been held for three years on Nauru despite being granted refugee status, died after setting himself on fire, Amnesty reported in April. It described it as ‘just another case that highlights the dismal failures of health care on Nauru, which is ill-equipped to deal with refugees suffering serious psychological conditions, often as a result of trauma’.

Nauru is the world’s smallest island state, with a population of fewer than 10,000 people and ‘with 1,159 asylum-seekers and refugees it is presently the country with the third highest proportion of refugees per capita in the world’, said Amnesty. Australia has been accused of turning Nauru into a ‘client state’ by supplying aid and buying services from Nauru’s government and companies.

Despite the widespread perception among Australians that most of the people held in the islands were economic migrants rather than genuine refugees, more than 98% of those detained on Manus Island were found to be refugees and 77.7% of those on Nauru, with the remainder held there still awaiting determination, according to official data reported by the Refugee Council of Australia.

The policy is not cheap. Offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea has cost more than A$570,000 ($435,000) a year for each person, according to the Australian National Audit Office, yet the average length of time taken to process refugee visas was a staggering 14.5 months, according to the Parliamentary Library of Australia.
As pressure built over conditions in detention—including ‘systemic physical and sexual abuses, humiliating treatment and harsh conditions, and widespread self-harm and suicide attempts’—Australia and PNG agreed to close down the Manus Island centre, the Guardian reported in August.

Yet, even as it promised to close down one centre, the Australian government was still robustly defending its policies. At a UN refugee summit in New York in September, the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and Dutton argued that other governments could emulate Australia’s hardline approach as a way to encourage their citizens to accept migrants, ABC News reported.

‘Addressing irregular migration through secure borders has been essential in creating the confidence that the government can manage migration in a way that mitigates risk and focuses humanitarian assistance on those who need it most,’ Turnbull said.

Nick McKim, the Green party senator for Tasmania, used a characteristically frank Australian turn of phrase in response, saying the prime minister was ‘furiously trying to put a shine on the steaming cowpat that is Australia’s immigration policy’.

Finally, on 13 November, Turnbull announced a ‘one-off’ deal had been reached that would see a number of refugees on Nauru be resettled in the US. Families, women and children would be given priority, with the prospect of some others of the 1,616 people held in offshore detention on Nauru and Manus Island also being offered asylum. The remaining refugees on Nauru will be eligible for 20-year temporary visas on the island.

The move was widely welcomed by human rights organisations and rival parties in Australia. Australia’s opposition leader, Bill Shorten, said: ‘It has taken the government three-plus years to negotiate this deal, but we are pleased if it is an end to indefinite detention.

‘We will certainly in principle work with the government. But we do welcome this. We do want to see people moved out of these facilities.’

However, with the surprise emergence of Donald Trump as the US president-elect, the Guardian noted there were serious questions about whether the bilateral arrangement would be honoured by the new administration. Asked about Trump’s policy to ban Muslim immigration, Turnbull stressed Australia’s history of cooperation with the US for humanitarian ends but did not say whether he thought the deal could survive Trump’s presidency.

Turnbull said: ‘We deal with one administration at the time. There is only one president of the United States at a time.’

The Australian government was also close to reaching an asylum-seeker deal with Malaysia, news.com.au reported, quoting a Sky New report that Turnbull was in talks with the Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, when they met at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru. Turnbull also announced that US officials had arrived in Australia en route to begin evaluating refugees on Nauru.

François Crépeau, the UN special rapporteur on migrant human rights, maintained the pressure on Australia by declaring that conditions on Nauru were ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading’, the BBC reported.

After an 18-day examination of Australia’s immigration laws, he said in Canberra: ‘Australia would vehemently protest if its citizens were treated like this by other countries and especially if Australian children were treated like this.’

The Canadian lawyer, who visited Nauru for two days, said Australia was responsible for how people sent there were treated. While acknowledging that Australia also had many ‘positive’ migration policies, such as taking in 12,000 Syrian refugees last year, he said: ‘Some of Australia’s migration policies have increasingly eroded the human rights of migrants in contravention of its international human rights and humanitarian obligations.’