TESSA MORRIS-SUZUKI. Australian Roulette: The Games our Government Plays with Asylum Seekers’ Lives

Oct 17, 2017

As the former refugee detention centre on Manus Island is closed down, asylum seekers there are being encouraged by the Australian government to “volunteer” for removal to Nauru. This confronts them with a pressing and terrible dilemma. Should they stay without support in the dangerous environment of Manus, or put themselves back into de facto detention in a place whose conditions have condemned as unsafe by the UNHCR? The Australian government is forcing them to gamble with their lives.

The sign on the wall reads like any advertisement encouraging prospective migrants to seek a bright new future across the seas. The appealing destination to which you are invited to move is an island nation of about 50,000 people, where the currency is Australian dollars and the locals speak English. On arrival, the advertisement promises, you will be provided financial support, accommodation in a centre with regular transport to nearby attractions, as well as “access to computers with internet access, phones and postal services”. You will, it helpfully adds, have the possibility of staying there for “up to 20 years” with “appropriate support”.

Tempted? This is an invitation to relocate yourself to Nauru “regional processing centre”. That’s the place where, according to an investigation by the UNHCR, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression “have reached epidemic proportions” and “the UNHCR anticipates that mental illness, distress and suicide will continue to escalate in the immediate and foreseeable future.”

There is, of course, only one group of people in the world who might be tempted by such an advertisement, and that is the desperate group of men who have been left in limbo, as the “regional processing centre” on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea is closed down. It is this centre that is now plastered with advertisements offering a bright future on Nauru.

In April this year, the Supreme Court of PNG ruled that the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island violated the nation’s constitution. Since then, Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has washed his hands of responsibility for the remaining 850-odd refugees on Manus Island, stating that they are PNG’s responsibility and will either be resettled there or be sent back to their countries of origin.

The denials of responsibility continued in the face of violent attacks on Manus Island asylum seekers, numerous cases of self-harm and inadequate medical treatment, and six deaths. Following the fifth death in August, again refusing to accept any responsibility, Dutton said, “I’m determined to get people off Manus”. Now we know how he plans to do it: by “inviting” them to move from one hell-hole to another.

For the asylum seekers, this creates an unbearable dilemma. If they stay in PNG, they will be forced out of the “processing centre” into totally inadequate accommodation in the Island’s main town of Lorengau, where they have no proper support or assistance and are at real risk of attack from the locals (who are, unsurprisingly, thoroughly fed up with having Australia’s refugee problems dumped on their very small and poor island). If they move to Nauru, they will be back under the thumb of the Australian authorities, the multinational companies who profit from running the “processing centre”, and Nauru politicians, several of whom have an unhealthy financial stake in the refugee business.

In Nauru their plight will also be largely invisible to the outside world, since the Nauru government charges an $8000 fee to journalists applying to visit the island (to be paid even if the visa application is rejected). Nauru’s tight control over the entry of people into its territory will make them more isolated than ever from outside support and assistance.

There are real fears amongst Manus Island refugees that they will be forcibly sent to Nauru regardless of their wishes. Even the Australian government has probably not yet sunk to the level where it would weather the international ignominy of herding refugees (over 80% of them already suffering from post-traumatic stress and other disorders) at gunpoint into transports to Nauru. But it has another weapon up its sleeve. The advertisement on the walls of the Manus Island centre reminds refugees that “in Nauru you can continue to pursue resettlement in the United States”. In other words, asylum seekers fear that their chances of getting in on the deal with US may be harmed if they do not accept the offer of “resettlement” to Nauru.

But, deal or no deal? Who knows? So far just 54 of the over 1800 asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru have been offered resettlement in the US. Many of those who remain on the two islands come from countries on which the US has placed an entry ban. President Trump has notoriously described the whole arrangement as a dumb deal. What if you choose “resettlement” to Nauru in the hope that this will open a path to the US, only to find that the US accepts a token few dozen more people and then washes its hands of the whole issue? Twenty years of regional processing on Nauru, and – if you are still alive and sane at the end it – then what?

In being asked to “choose” between staying in PNG and moving to Nauru, the men on Manus Island, over 70 per cent of whom have been found to be genuine refugees, are being asked to gamble with their lives.

Our government is not only forcing vulnerable and exhausted people to play “Australian roulette”, it is also eroding the moral fabric of our nation, as Peter Dutton is given free range to deride and vilify refugees and their supporters: telling the public without a shred of evidence that “world’s biggest collection of Armani jeans and handbags [is] up on Nauru waiting for people to collect when they depart”, and accusing refugee advocates of encouraging refugees to commit suicide or acts of self-harm

How much lower can our government sink, and how much longer can Labor maintain its resounding failure to stand up and be counted?


Tessa Morris-Suzuki is Professor of Japanese History and Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the Australian National University.

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