2,000 days on Manus and Nauru

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A Manus Island refugee stares out towards a freedom never gained (Screenshot via YouTube)

After more than five years of being imprisoned on Manus Island, hope is still a pipe dream for the refugees being held there, writes Fabia Claridge.

TODAY IS THE 2,000th day on Manus for some 600 asylum seekers who came by boat.

A similar number remain on Nauru.

What’s ahead for these people in mouldy tropical locations, with few work opportunities and resources?

In the current climate of fear and hate, where Dutton claims Sudanese gangs are stalking Brisbane and Ipswich, demonisation (as “criminals of bad character” and threats to national security) seems inevitable.

Australian citizens of African descent have so few rights, so what hope is there for those non-citizens who have been trafficked against their will to places of indefinite detention and concentration?

Many legal attempts to transfer these hostages to Australia have fallen in a heap.


  • The goal posts constantly move. If the gates of the compounds are sometimes open, then they are not technically “detained”.
  • They are often deemed the responsibility of the country that they are held by, not the nation that arranged to transfer them there. 
  • Their access to proper care is dubious. Several million seems to buy PIH a container and a few overstretched staff, but none of the resources of a rural Aussie hospital, run down though that may be.
  • Pitting overtaxed and underpaid “have nots” against one another while corporate cronyism lets big companies and banks get away tax free is very much a part of the economic rationalist lexicon.
  • Privatising national assets and services which have intentionally been defunded, and driven to failure so they no longer offer high-value outcomes is another. Immigration detention has been caught in this net.
  • Boats seem to be deterred by naval patrols, but more importantly by good port security at points of departure and by ending corruption.

Former Home Affairs staffer Shaun Hanns spoke about this at length in the latter part of 2018.

In spite of this, asylum seekers kept offshore are still being used as deterrents to boat arrivals.

As Shaun Hanns says:

“I no longer believe the ongoing refusal to resettle those on Nauru and Manus in Australia serves any purpose.”

The number of visa overstayers who arrive by plane are mounting. Moreover, there have been increasingly large numbers of asylum claims by people arriving by plane. Those who arrive by plane and then claim asylum are less frequently found to be bona fide asylum seekers.

The main push factors for unscheduled arrivals seem to be wars, persecution and lack of human rights in the country of origin. But the removal of regional processing and an orderly departure program of the Vietnam War era in South East Asia during the Howard years has undoubtedly contributed to the rise in attempts to reach Australia by unofficial pathways. 

Thinkers and researchers on refugee policy currently propose alternate or protected pathway options from transit countries.

Technically, under international law, it remains legal to seek asylum by any means, with no discrimination for means of arrival. However, deaths at sea are common. The dangers and difficulties of remaining in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam or Thailand have to be great for folk to embrace boat journeys. Most people who risk their own precious lives and have resorted to boats turn out to be genuine refugees.

Moreover, questions still remain to be answered about Australia’s response and rescue operations. Tony Kevin has written at length about this.

Slowness to respond was contrasted by some with the diligence of the Mare Nostrum sea rescue program in Italy, now discontinued.

The fear of “inundation” by foreigners whipped up by divisive politicians and racists is a distraction. The public seems confused by the challenges of mass economic migrants, who are not refugees. Using rich migrants to boost the economy has long been government policy. Yet key distinctions are not made. The figures become conflated in the public mind. Multicultural narratives that support these government-orchestrated demographic changes are missing. Is the confusion deliberate?

Aussies prefer to avoid the nuances of foreign conflict. Aussies seem to have long been trained to accept a cursory narrative of conflict within nations, to accept intervention by our Government, and others, in the name of forcing democratic behaviours on nations riven by external and internal challenges. 

Legal Options

Current achievements through the legal system include the work of the National Justice Project. This small legal firm working on a shoestring has managed to obtain medical evacuations for many adults and children on both Manus and Nauru. These injunctions have also prevented refoulement and return to island detention. The very astute Associate Professor George Newhouse has run these cases with his small team from the National Justice Project

Moreover, the NJP is crowd-funded and punching above its weight. The team has earned deep respect across the sprawling refugee sector. 

Despite a tight budget, the Newhouse team has effectively used injunctions to secure a wave of some 39 medical evacuations for children with what has been identified by psychiatrists as “resignation syndrome”.

Since then, public campaigns by World Vision and Médecins Sans Frontières, alongside other sector agencies, have helped remove more people under 16 through the courts. It is to be hoped that their very effective awareness-raising campaigns will continue, despite the challenges of regional natural disasters and fewer cute kiddie pics

It must be remembered that still more minors grew to full adulthood while held on Nauru. 

Asylum seekers are caught in a cleft stick. If they present as sick or mad they lose their eligibility for transfer to very selective third countries such as the United States. The limited number of places in the U.S. and arbitrary refusal to accept refugees from specific Third World countries has meant there is no real third country option for many.

There are currently only seven “children” left on Nauru. In theory, many of the children now in Australia could be returned to Nauru once “better”. 

There are also the follow considerations:

  • Whether Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Prime Minister Scott Morrison are prepared for the fallout from returning them in an election year remains to be seen.
  • The upcoming Phelps Bill is one piece of legislation, which may secure safety for medically or psychologically broken offshore asylum seekers. Even so, much of the medical care dispensed is cursory or punitive.
  • A change of government to the ALP might reinforce any such trend. However, there seems to be little alternative to slogging through the remaining 1,200 legal cases one by one. The difficulty in obtaining direct access to the refugees is part of the problem.
  • George Newhouse is proposing two broader cases that might end the misery.
  • The fate of those transferred once they reach Australia is another topic. Their situation remains vulnerable and unresolved. Tragically, many families are split. Detention centre conditions are harsh. Moreover, community detention is both isolating and poverty riven. It can be up to six years before asylum seekers have the right to work. They do not have the same rights as ordinary citizens. Any minor breach of the law can lead to deportation.
  •  Amnesty and Rural Australians for Refugees are pushing sponsorships along the Canadian model. What model of this did Labor vote for at its recent Conference?
  • SRSS info — while Labor has promised to reinstate some economic supports if elected, community funding for refugees has been shredded.

The bottom line is that there is little immediate relief for those mouldering and stranded on Manus and Nauru. They lack access to basic resources, are subjected to medical neglect and violence and deprived of independent media contact.

A shift of narrative and a new parliament with enough of a majority to make the changes may help. The Phelps Bill and a change of government may gradually improve their lot.

But vision and leadership will be an important factor. Some advocates are pressuring MPs to push for a one-off amnesty to allow them to be brought to safety, saying the precedent exists. In 1989, Bob Hawke managed to offer a one-off safe haven settlement visa for all Chinese students in Australia after the Tiananmen Massacre. His actions came down to his determination to take a risk and show leadership. 

In the medium-to-long-term, a cultural shift will be necessary to realign public perceptions, to wind back policies established during the 20-year-long period of deterrence and anti-refugee propaganda, and to put into place other solutions that exist but are not implemented because of the current political bind.

The Global Compact on Migration and Refugees is one.

The hostages on Manus and Nauru will be hoping that the NJP cases also bring more immediate change. It might be worth donating the price of a latté or bottle of mineral water to see what further miracles can be wrought by this shoestring team of legal geniuses.

Fabia Claridge has been involved in the refugee movement for 20 years, most recently as Co-convenor of People Just Like Us. It is a small and agile NGO, comprising members from diverse backgrounds.

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