In 2001, at the height of a wave of asylum seekers arriving predominantly from Afghanistan and Iraq, 438 people were rescued at sea, at Australia’s request, by the MV Tampa. What followed, in the lead up to an Australian Federal election, was political engineering at its most ruthless. The Howard Government turned what should have been a humanitarian disaster, into an apparent crisis of Australia’s national security and sovereignty reflecting an exclusionary nationalism that played well to an electorate living in uncertain times.
The alternative response would have shown a Government ill at ease with the increasing unrest within detention centres (riots, accusations of child abuse, distressed workers in the camps going to the media) and the growing number of boat arrivals at the time. Detention centres were overflowing and the Howard Government was in danger of being perceived as incompetent.
In 2006, The Government’s proposed changes to the Migration Act, which excise Australia’s coastline and move processing and resettlement offshore , can be seen in a similar light. Howard has bowed to the rhetoric of a foreign government in order to appear ‘in control’ and to demonstrate that Australia maintains its harsh stance on asylum seeker arrivals. Also implicit in this move is an expression of fear that we could be about to receive a flood of Papuan arrivals from the north.
There is no doubt that a large part of the Australian community is still willing to support Howard on asylum seekers, but the circumstances today are significantly different to those leading up to the creation of the Pacific Solution in 2001, and there can be no guarantee of the same political success with Pacific Solution Mark II.
At the time of the incident, the Howard Government’s rhetoric fed into widespread, erroneous perceptions within the community about the nature of people seeking asylum. After many years of economic restructuring and global change, it was also an electorate with deep-seated uncertainty about the future.
The depictions of asylum seekers offered by the Howard Government during this period covered a range of undesirable characteristics and were deliberately provocative to an Australian domestic audience.
The ALP’s dehumanising rhetoric on border control was often just as vigorous and misleading.
On talkback radio, the response to the Tampa incident was described by media monitors as ‘massive,’ with 71 per cent in support of the Government and only 14 per cent against. Callers’ responses included that the asylum seekers should be sent away and shot, and links were made to recent pack rapes.
At the time, the victims were voiceless, faceless and hopelessly caught in the crossfire of a domestic political campaign. But since 2001, Australians have had first-hand contact with the people who arrived on those boats, been witness to Immigration Department bungles, and have campaigned for children to be released from detention. The mainstream’s opinion about asylum seekers has, at least to some degree, changed.
Consequently, the arrival of 43 West Papuan asylum seekers earlier this year did not evoke the Tampa-like fear sin the Australian community. (A Newspoll survey recently commissioned by businessman Ian Melrose also found that more than three quarters of Australians support the independence of West Papua from Indonesia, an echo of the solidarity expressed towards East Timorese people in recent years.)
One sane voice in Parliament during the Tampa debate, Andrew Theophanous MP, suggested that we should estimate, based on previous arrivals, that two thirds of the people on the Tampa would eventually be accepted as genuine refugees, whether we liked it or not, and that we should deal with the problem sooner rather than later. No-one was listening.
Two thirds of the 1547 people processed on Manus Island and Nauru were eventually resettled in Australia and New Zealand, with a small number going to Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Canada. The remaining third returned, under pressure, to their countries of origin. Many found, however, that conditions were too unstable and unsafe for them to remain in these countries on return, and have made their way back over borders and into neighbouring countries.
Thanks to Bill Leak.
In November 2005, when all but two of the remaining asylum seekers were brought off Nauru because of a considerable decline in their mental health, the Australian Prime Minister trumpeted the Pacific Solution as an ‘outstanding success.’ But on what terms can the detention of people on Pacific islands be seen as a success and at what cost to those involved?
The negative consequences of offshore processing have been great, including psychological damage to the people involved and the financial cost to Australia. Many problems have arisen from the lack of accountability inherent in the processing of people offshore, the lack of legal representation, the lack of adequate appeal processes and the lack of specialist medical care on Nauru (people must be flown to Australia for treatment).
We are just starting to see some accountability for errors in processing asylum seekers on the mainland over recent years, but there has been no investigation of the more than 1,500 cases processed on Nauru and Manus Island since 2001. It is possible, even probable, that some people who were returned to their countries of origin, under pressure from Australia, may not have had their cases correctly assessed.
I was fortunate to be allowed by the Nauruan Government to travel to Nauru twice last year for my research on offshore processing. On my visits, I found single men who were depressed, distressed and anxious. Most were on medication of some kind. The women were despairing, one was very unwell with ongoing health problems. Parents were desperate for their children to have normal lives outside of a detention camp. By the end of my second two-week visit, many were staying in their rooms all day, some of them crying by themselves as they had done for three years.
To the credit of the current Nauruan Government, who were not in power when the original memorandum of understanding with Australia was signed, the camps were opened up in early 2005 to alleviate some of the difficulties, allowing people to move around the island during daylight hours. But the significant problems stem not so much from the conditions in which people have been kept on Nauru, but from the length of time that people have remained in limbo without access to Australian legal processes or advice.
This week, I have just returned from another two weeks visiting Nauru. After more than four and a half years, the situation of the two men who are left behind remains unresolved. The men have been assessed by Australia to be ‘genuine’ refugees, however, the Australian Government has decided, at this stage, that the men must be resettled in a country other than Australia because they have not passed security tests. Details of their security assessments have not been made available to the men a cause of great distress to them.
Having spent many hours talking to the men over recent years, including spending every day and night with them for the past two weeks, I find the situation incomprehensible and tragic. I hold grave concerns
that one or both of the men will not be able to cope for as long as it takes to find a resettlement option.
We should be learning from our past experience of offshore processing. It has not been an outstanding success as the Prime Minister claims, it has been an absolute failure and the human consequences are still being felt. It is a miracle that none of the self harm attempts on Nauru have thus far resulted in a person’s death. And it is only because of the many caring Australians who have kept up support for those in the camps, and the Nauruan people who have offered their hospitality and kindness in spite of extreme poverty. Community members have carried the burden of responsibility that was ignored by the Australian Government.
It would be convenient for the Australian Government to never have to process people on the mainland, but the UN High Commission for Refugees have made it clear that the proposed changes to the Migration Law are a step in the wrong direction:
While the costs of the original Pacific Solution continue to mount, all current indications are that the Pacific Solution Mark II will be no different and just as costly to all involved.
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