The most high-profile of our asylum policies, and the most heartbreaking and damaging, is the policy of offshore processing, the polite term for sending people seeking asylum to Nauru and Papua New Guinea. As discussed earlier, this was first introduced by then Prime Minister John Howard in 2001.
However, the current policy has one key difference: when people were recognised as refugees in the first version, they were resettled, mostly in Australia but also in other countries. Since 19 July 2013, our current policy is never to allow these people to be resettled in Australia. This meant that people have been there for years after being recognised as refugees.
The conditions of life in Nauru and PNG also have been shrouded in secrecy, but much information has come out through the bravery of whistleblowers, media and those living through the experience.
Serious and significant concerns have been raised about many of the aspects of offshore processing. These include their living conditions, access to healthcare, risks of sexual and other abuse, and the criminalisation of abortion and homosexuality in both Nauru and PNG. However, the main concern is the anguish caused by the prolonged and indefinite detention, coupled usually with the real fear that people will never be able to leave or see their families again.
For some time, there was no obvious place where people could be resettled. Eventually, at extortionate cost, the Cambodian government offered to resettle people, but only if they came voluntarily. This offer came with a $40 million resettlement. As Cambodia is a poor country where prospects of integration are low, very few people have taken up this offer, and even fewer have remained in Cambodia.
In November 2016, the Australian Government managed to negotiate a deal with the US government to resettle up to 1,250 refugees on Nauru and PNG. However, the US would effectively reassess all claims and prioritise the ‘most vulnerable’, indicating that women and families would come first.
In 2018, as people’s health became more and more critical, the pace of transfers increased. This was in part due to the efforts of lawyers who brought a series of successful cases to the courts, forcing the government to transfer people. In September 2018, the #KidsOffNauru campaign brought the issue to greater political prominence, encouraging the government to speed up the transfers from Nauru, especially of children. There have also been a handful of transfers from Papua New Guinea, although the serious issues there have been much less visible to the public because there are no Australian service providers left on the island.
While the #KidsOffNauru campaign was successful in speeding up the resettlement of children, there were still significant concerns about the health of the men left on Manus Island. This led to another campaign to ensure the independent review by doctors of the health concerns of those on Manus Island and Nauru. With the support of the Labor Party, Greens and Centre Alliance, legislation was passed to ensure that independent doctors could submit cases of those who needed to be transferred to the Minister for Immigration. This was subject to merits review by a panel that was established in legislation. This was known as the Medevac Bill.
The Medevac Bill was passed in February 2019, and 192 people were transferred to Australia under its provisions. This was due to the efforts of volunteer doctors under the umbrella of the Medical Evacuation Response Group. Despite a strong community campaign, however, the legislation was repealed on 4 December 2019.
Those transferred to Australia (often referred to as ‘transitory people’) were at first held in community detention, but later the Australian Government sought to deter people by putting them in held detention or on bridging visas that effectively deprived these people of support.
In October 2021, the Australian Government announced the end of its arrangement with Papua New Guinea at the end of 2021. When the arrangement ended, 105 people were still in Papua New Guinea.
Transfers for medical treatment back to Australia, including under the pressure of legal action, and continuing resettlement gradually reduced the numbers on Nauru, with only two left on Nauru before another 11 people were transferred after a boat was intercepted in September 2023.