Today marks five years since the Australian government started sending everyone coming by boat to seek asylum to languish in offshore detention centres in the Pacific, never to be resettled in Australia. In those five years, 12 people have died, families have been torn apart, and over 3,000 children and adults have endured enormous mental and physical harm. Yet the Australian government celebrates the policy as a ‘success’, and other parts of the world are now looking to the Australian way as a potential ‘solution’.
As the peak body in Australia representing refugees and people seeking asylum and those who support them, the Refugee Council of Australia has seen, heard and documented the real impacts of this policy. We know beyond a doubt that this policy is not a solution. Today, as we mark five years of this round of offshore processing, we urge politicians both here and abroad to reject this policy of extreme cruelty. Why do we say this policy is not a solution? In the past five years, 12 of the people we sent to Nauru and PNG have died. One was beaten to death in Manus Island, and others died because of inadequate healthcare or suicide. These were brave, resilient people who had escaped conflict and persecution and often had undergone precarious journeys to seek safety. They survived all that, but we broke them.
Those that are still alive say, over and over, how they wish they could die. Many have self-harmed or attempted to suicide. Health professionals have all spoken out about the mental health crisis that we have created. Paul Stevenson, a psychologist with more than 40 years of experience working with trauma victims, described the situations of those on Nauru and Manus Island as the worst he has ever seen.
We have made children suffer terribly. There have been countless reports of assault, abuse (including sexual abuse) and exploitation. In just the past six months, courts have had to order eight children suffering life-threatening psychological or physical illnesses to be brought to Australia, over the protests of the Australian government.
Those court orders have had to be made because the Australian Government repeatedly ignores the advice of doctors in deciding when people need to be transferred for medical treatment. The most senior medical official deployed on Nauru to speak out, Dr Nick Martin, said that diabetics were at risk of going blind. Pregnant women faced delays in dealing with serious complications. Other pregnant women who needed to terminate their pregnancies – including those who became pregnant after being raped on the island – have not received appropriate care. The Government even attempted to transfer a woman to Papua New Guinea to terminate her pregnancy, even though abortion is illegal in that country.
Offshore processing also tears families apart. While the separation of children from their parents has rightly caused widespread outrage in the United States, Australia’s offshore processing policies have been keeping families apart for years. Many families are separated between Australia, Nauru and PNG. There are fathers who have never met their children.
Five years on, more than 80% of people on Manus Island and Nauru are still in limbo. They cannot work, study, live in safety, or hold hopes for the future. It is even worse for those from countries like Iran and Somalia, as it is very unlikely they will be resettled by the US. Those who have been transferred to Australia have so far not received any form of protection.
The policy of offshore processing has miserably failed those who need our protection. It has also failed Australia. We have undermined our credibility as a leader in human rights, as a leader in our region, and as a leading multicultural country. We have wasted more than $5 billion on a policy to punish over 3,000 people for simply exercising the human right of asking for protection. Along the way, we have lost our moral compass.
There is nothing successful about the Australian model of offshore processing. It has cost lives, torn families apart, made children want to kill themselves, and broken people. It has cost us more than $5 billion to trash our own reputation as a country. The “Australian solution” is not a solution. It is an epic failure.