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Offshore detention: Australia's recent immigration history a 'human rights catastrophe'
The Guardian (Australia) - November 13, 2016
Since offshore processing was restarted in 2001, it has grown into an internationally condemned, secretive regime, subject to hundreds of court cases in Australia and overseas.
Inside the centres there
have been violent deaths, horrific acts of self-harm and abuse, and mass
The centres have emptied and swelled, peaking under the former Labor government.
The government's line, hardened over the years by both Labor and the Coalition, had left it in an immovable position – not one asylum seeker who comes by boat can settle in Australia, lest its policy be seen as a failure.
Australia's government claims its harsh policies have stopped the boats – despite some recent attempts – and thus the deaths at sea. It's assumed any future arrivals would be dealt with as they are now – with enhanced screening processes and boat turnbacks.
The 'Pacific Solution'
Offshore processing restarted in earnest in 2001 after the Tampa affair, when a Norwegian freighter rescued 433 asylum seekers from their sinking vessel, 140km from Christmas Island. Against international law, Australia refused the Tamp entry into its waters, sparking an international controversy.
Dubbed the "Pacific Solution" under then prime minister John Howard, the policy saw all asylum seekers who arrived by boat intercepted at sea and sent straight to offshore camps established on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.
Christmas Island, closer to Indonesia, was excised from the Australian migration zone to host another centre. A subsequent Labor government would more than 10 years later excise the entire Australian mainland.
Following the "children overboard" incident in October 2001 – and the deaths of 353 men, women and children in the Siev X disaster – asylum seekers were a major political issue and Howard went to a federal election with his infamous declaration that "we will decide who comes to this country and the manner in which they come".
Howard won the election and offshore processing continued. Concerns about indefinite detention and its impact on physical and mental health was widespread among advocates and rights groups.
'Pacific Solution' ends but the boats restart
The detention camps housed more than 1,500 people. Between 2001 and 2008, 705 people from the offshore centres were resettled in Australia and 401 in New Zealand. Some asylum seekers remained in detention for years, but the boat arrivals slowed, and in 2008 offshore processing was dismantled by the new Labor government, led by Kevin Rudd.
However arrivals began again and several high-profile tragedies, including an explosion on a boat near Ashmore Reef in 2009 and the crashing of Siev 221 on the coast of Christmas Island in 2010, contributed to a death toll at sea estimated at more than 1,000.
A deal under then prime minister Julia Gillard, signed in mid 2011 with Malaysia, was supposed to see 4,000 refugees taken from Malaysia's camps in return for it taking 800 asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat, but this was struck down by the high court.
Later, the Coalition immigration minister Scott Morrison would successfully negotiate a $55.5m deal with Cambodia to host refugees, but it would be taken up by just six people, with many returning home shortly after arriving.
Following recommendations from an expert panel which focused largely on the need for a "no advantage" policy, offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island restarted in August 2012.
An "enhanced screening" process – criticised for its lack of transparency – was introduced to deal with the overwhelming backlog of asylum seekers, which grew to 20,000 by mid-2013.
Amnesty International and the UNHCR released reports condemning the conditions inside the two centres, and the indefinite nature of the detention. Amnesty labelled the Nauru centre "a human rights catastrophe".
The loss of hope
On 19 July 2013, Rudd – who was again prime minister – announced a further deal with Papua New Guinea to process asylum seekers. From this date forth no one who sought asylum in Australia by boat would ever settle in Australia, he said.
This date would also become the pin for the Coalition government's planned visa ban.
That night a protest on Nauru descended into a riot, which a group of Salvation Army employees would say in the following days was "an inevitable outcome from a cruel and degrading policy".
In August a similar agreement to the PNG deal was signed with Nauru, shortly before the federal election which was won by the Coalition, led by Tony Abbott. Almost immediately the new government announced the establishment of a military response to the asylum seeker issue.
Abbott praised his new immigration minister, Scott Morrison. "You don't want a wimp running border protection, you want someone who is strong, who is decent and Scott Morrison is both strong and decent."
Operation Sovereign Borders
Operation Sovereign Borders saw a distinct uptick in the treatment of asylum seekers as a border security issue, with heavy use of military and customs resources, the appointment of three-star military officer to lead operations, and an increasing culture of secrecy.
The government ended its weekly briefings and began to invoke "on-water matters" in refusing to answer questions about incidents or policy decisions. Journalists had not been allowed inside the centres for some time, but in January 2014 the Nauruan government, which would become increasingly hostile to media attention on issues with its facility, raised the application fee for a media visa to the country to a non-refundable $8,000.
In 2015 the government introduced the Border Force Act which made the disclosure of information about conditions inside offshore centres by employees punishable with up to two years in prison. The new laws were highly criticised and many employees or former employees chose to speak out regardless.
Reports and concerns about the conditions in offshore detention centres continued as reports of violence, and physical and mental illness accumulated.
In February 2014, 23-year-old Reza Barati was killed during a disturbance at the Manus Island facility, and another 60 were injured during the unrest. Hamid Khazaei, an Iranian asylum seeker on Manus Island died of an infection in September 2014. Later media reports would allege inadequate medical care.
Whistleblowers increasingly emerged, including Peter Young, chief psychiatrist responsible for the care of asylum seekers in detention, who told Guardian Australia the regime was built to make people suffer.
A cabinet reshuffle saw Morrison replaced as immigration minister by Peter Dutton, who would continue Morrison's hard line against asylum seekers, advocates and journalists.
In 2015, the Forgotten Children
report by the Human Rights Commission, discovered more than 300 children
made or threatened self-harm attempts over just 15 months, and dozens reported
sexual assault. It made 16 recommendations about the offshore centres and
condemned both parties, but was dismissed by the Coalition government as
The Moss report into allegations of sexual abuse on Nauru
Commissioned by the government, the Moss report found widespread sexual and physical assault, and inadequate responses.
Abbott responded to the report by saying the most compassionate thing the government could do was stop the boats, and that: "Occasionally, I daresay, things happen, because in any institution you get things that occasionally aren't perfect."
A Senate inquiry to examine the allegations heard accusations a child was cable tied by guards as a joke. It recommended an full audit of allegations and greater transparency measures.
In June allegations were aired that Australian security officials had paid people smugglers to turn a boat back to Indonesia.
The reports mounted, and the international community began to take more notice. In August the Guardian published the Nauru Files, more than 2,000 documents evidencing widespread trauma among detainees and numerous instances of abuse.
The government said it would audit the files, later finding them to be adequately investigated. Labor launched a Senate inquiry.
Dutton, not for the first time, accused advocates and media of misreporting and trivialising, and giving asylum seekers false hope. Ahead of the 2016 election he had accused asylum seekers of being illiterate and innumerate, and likely to take Australian jobs and use its welfare.
Defending policy in court
The Australian government's policies have been subject to an exhaustive number of legal challenges, many of which it has won.
In mid 2014 more than 150 Sri Lankan Tamils spent a month at sea after a legal battle erupted over their attempts to seek asylum. The Australian government considered returning them to India or Sri Lanka. The high court eventually ruled their detention legal.
In the later months of 2014, Morrison announced further extensions of immigration policy which sought to keep asylum seekers – and some refugees – anywhere but Australia.
This April, in arguably one of the most significant court decisions for Australia's offshore processing policy, the PNG supreme court ruled the Manus Island detention centre illegal and unconstitutional and ordered it closed. The decision caused a standoff between the Australian and PNG two governments over who was responsible for the detainees. The detention centre remains, albeit in a more "open" form.
The legality of offshore processing itself had been taken to the highest court. In February 2016 it was found to be legal, based on a retrospective amendment to the Migration Act, which the court said allowed for the commonwealth's involvement in detaining someone in another country.
It was not the only high court challenge rendered redundant by a last-minute change of policy or regulation.
In October 2016, on the eve of a high court challenge by medical groups to the Border Force Act's secrecy provisions, health workers were carved out of the Border Force Act's disclosure provisions, although other employees like teachers and social workers remained subject.
Advocates have cautiously welcomed the "one-off" US refugee decision and urged the government transfer people quickly, to end their detention and uncertainty.
The number of refugees the US will take has not been confirmed and Australia has said the intake will be subject to the US security vetting, so those in detention still do not have any guarantees of resettlement.
Remaining refugees on Nauru will be eligible for 20-year temporary visas on Nauru, the government says.
Refugees on Nauru and Manus – many of whom have been there for more than three years and no longer wish to settle in Australia after their treatment – reported some support for the deal as they understood it before Sunday's announcement.
There had been speculation about a deal with the US since Turnbull told a global migration summit Australia would carve out part of its humanitarian intake for Costa Ricans.
The special minister of state, Scott Ryan, categorically denied Australia would be involved in a "people-swap" of refugees with the US.
Meanwhile the government is also negotiating with the Senate crossbench to pass its bill to permanently ban any of the 3,100 people on Manus, Nauru and in the Australian community who arrived by a certain type of vessel after a certain date, from ever returning.