‘No Advantage’ Policy Creates Nightmares on Manus Island and Nauru

Manus Island Detention Center. Photo Credit: DIAC Images Flickr
Manus Island regional processing center. Photo Credit: DIAC Images Flickr

The Australian Government’s asylum-seeker policy has gone from harsh to incomprehensible. If the center left Labor Party adopted the center right Liberal policy of offshore detention, where will policy turn if the Liberal Party wins the upcoming election? Last month on this blog I questioned Australia’s regional processing and detention center on the small island republic of Nauru; the center has caused political upheaval in a historically tumultuous political environment. This post examines the ‘no advantage’ policy and Australia’s scare tactics to avoid dealing with genuine asylum seekers.

The current asylum-seeker policy of the Gillard Labor Government is composed of recommendations from an expert panel initiated last year. The main recommendation instituted was a ‘no advantage’ policy to deter immigration. The policy provides no advantage for asylum-seekers attempting irregular entry into the country versus those who file an application for asylum in advance. Along with the reinstatement of the Pacific Solution this has led to arbitrary detentions in offshore processing sites with little impact on the number of migrants risking their lives since last August. As a result, the Australian government embarked on an audacious advertising campaign targeting potential refugees, most recently in Afghanistan. However, stemming people-smuggling and preventing irregular migration will not be solved by unilateral actions; Australia’s policies are worsening the plight of asylum-seekers, causing problems for its Pacific Island neighbors, and prohibiting meaningful discussion about why people are moving.

 The ‘no advantage’ policy has led tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to be detained with no way to provide for their families and no hope of their claim for asylum to be met. According to the policy, “There is no advantage or benefit and, indeed, there is no guarantee people who arrive by boat will ever come to Australia.” If caught in and around Australia’s territorial waters, asylum-seekers will be sent to Manus Island, Nauru or Australia’s Christmas Island.

 Just in time for World Refugee Day on June 20, there were signs that Australia would no longer send women and children to Manus Island for processing. Seventy asylum-seekers originally sent to Manus Island will be sent to Christmas Island, along with 40 family members. However, rather than promote a new, more humane policy shift, a spokesman for the immigration minister’s office said “There is no shift in government policy; families remain liable for transfer for regional processing.” This particular action of moving families is likely due to the recent international criticisms of Australia’s tactics and reports that the number of children in detention camps is at its highest level.

 The conditions within detention centers, including the slow pace of (and at times nonexistent) processing, are unfair, unnecessary and exactly what the Australian government wants. In May, the Australian television program SBS Dateline aired an investigation into the center at Manus Island. Journalist Mark Davis confirmed the rumor that because asylum-seekers fear they will be detained forever without the ability to pay debts, provide for their families, or escape the mental torture within the center, they have no hope. Asylum-seekers soon become detainees, and many are continuing to harm themselves and in some cases attempt to commit suicide.

No Advantage Policy Advertisement. Photo Credit: DIAC Images Flickr
No Advantage Policy Advertisement. Photo Credit: DIAC Images Flickr

 To further strengthen the crude policy, the Australian government maintains targeted advertising in the countries that asylum-seekers are desperately fleeing. Recently, the government spent over $555,000 on more television and radio advertisements in Afghanistan. The advertisements focus on the financial and psychological pain of Afghanis whose relatives were caught during their journey and sent to Manus Island. As part of the International Security Assistance Force, Australia has 1,039 of its own troops in Afghanistan. It seems incomprehensible for Australia to be part of a coalition occupying a country and simultaneously advertising warnings to its people that if they attempt to flee to Australia they will likely die or be imprisoned. This discrimination against Afghan refugees is not new, however. In 2010, Australia implemented a processing freeze on asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, claiming that conditions were adequate in their own countries. The advertisements aimed at individuals and families in developing, war-torn countries accurately reflects the dire situation that refugees will face if they try to seek asylum in Australia via boat; reinforcing an image of the unjust process, though, is not only failing to achieve results but should be a source of embarrassment for Australia.

 The government of Afghanistan meanwhile claimed it was not consulted about the content of Australia’s anti-asylum-seeker advertisements. An Afghan official stated that “People will look at this ad and say this man failed, but won’t necessarily think it will happen to them.” The advertisements show a lack of engagement with Afghan communities and a lack of regard for issues faced at home by potential asylum-seekers (including those Australia’s role in the occupation of Afghanistan). If both governments were involved, the deterrence advertising could have greater legitimacy, showing the issues of asylum-seekers are serious for both governments. Instead, Australia is working almost unilaterally to deter what government officials and media have repeatedly called ‘illegals’ and ‘boat people’.

 Dr. Khalid Koser predicts that the security situation in Afghanistan will deteriorate in the next two years, leading to inevitably more asylum-seekers heading to Australia by boat. Thus the ‘no advantage’ policy and even opposition leader Tony Abbott’s idea of towing boats back toward Indonesia will be unlikely to stem the flow of asylum-seekers fleeing Afghanistan. Rather, the goals should be to secure Afghanistan, support internal processes such as elections, and encourage international mechanisms for processing and taking care of asylum-seekers before they reach perilous boats.

 The severe problems in Afghanistan are, however, not the only issues leading to an increase in people seeking asylum in Australia. Over the last few years, there has been a spike in asylum-seekers traveling via boat to Australia. Already this year from January to mid-May, almost 9,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat.  Different world events including the global financial crisis, civil wars and other ‘push factors’ led to this increase. In June 2013 alone, at least 55 asylum seekers have drowned with dozens of additional people lost at sea while headed to Australia. The lack of media access to the detention centers in Nauru and Manus Island prohibits discussions about why people are traveling to Australia as well as the conditions they face upon arrival. As the statistics and harrowing stories show, people continue to flee violence and discrimination in Afghanistan, Pakistan and remain undeterred from either the hazardous journey or arbitrary detention.

 Stats

Source: Refugee Council. Phillips, J. & Spinks, H. (2013). Boat arrivals in Australia since 1976. Parliamentary Library, http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/BN/2012-2013/BoatArrivals

 The Labor government did not anticipate the record number of arrivals this year and underestimated the cost of maintaining detention centers. This lack of planning led to a budget increase for asylum-seekers but at the expense of other programs within the overseas development aid budget. Arbitrary detention places a financial burden on the Australian taxpayer in addition to the financial and psychological pressure on asylum-seekers (including women and children).

 Unfortunately the current policy has found support among the Australian public. Prior to the Labor Governments’ reinstitution of the Pacific Plan, in July 2012 Essential Research asked “Do you think the Federal Labor Government is too tough or too soft on asylum-seekers or is it taking the right approach?” Respondents indicated the following: 12% answered ‘too tough’, 11% ‘right approach’, while 60% indicated ‘too soft’. Also prior to the policy change, a United Nations Refugee Agency survey asked Australians if boat arrivals make them “more or less sympathetic” towards asylum-seekers; “32% responded ‘much less sympathetic’, only 8% ‘much more sympathetic.’” Finally, an Essential Research poll asked Australians in August 2012 if they supported the reinstitution of offshore asylum-seeker processing in PNG and Nauru; 67% supported, and 18% opposed. While much of the world is facing a prolonged recession, Australia’s economic boom has not made Australians more amenable to asylum-seekers and new immigrants. Rather, Australians have become more guarded.

 

Nauru regional processing facility. Photo Credit: DIAC Images Flickr.
Nauru regional processing facility. Photo Credit: DIAC Images Flickr

On Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru, the national governments are trying to honor commitments they made to Australia in their management of offshore processing and detention centers. At the same time, in facilitating the ‘no advantage’ policy, the states are conflicted in their desire to ensure asylum-seekers are protected and treated adequately. Prime Minister O’Neill of PNG has stated that he wants the asylum-seekers on Manus Island to be able to help the community, work, have a normal sense of life” and be able to move around the country. On several occasions Prime Minister O’Neill claims he has promoted this idea to Australia; ultimately, it is up to Australia how asylum-seekers are managed and cared for on the offshore centers, despite how often the Australian officials claim it is up to the local governments.  

Rather than deterring irregular maritime migration to Australia, the ‘no advantage’ policy has put unfair pressure on Nauru and Papua New Guinea and promotes unreasonable treatment of asylum-seekers. As an international process and with scrutiny from the United Nations, Australia’s offshore processing and detention centers should be accessible to journalists who have already helped identify areas where bilateral and international dialogue is lacking. Since the global financial crisis in 2008 and due to increasing violence in the Middle East and parts of Southeast Asia, a record number of asylum-seekers continue to travel via boat toward Australia. Too many continue to drown along the way. For domestic political reasons, there is an overemphasis on the seizure and detention of people in the Asia-Pacific, with not enough regional discussion on push factors or truly regional solutions. Instead of removing protections and supporting arbitrary detention to punish them, Australia should focus on helping to protect vulnerable groups before they are forced to make the journey.

Is the Pacific Solution Australia’s Guantanamo?

With a population of less than 10,000 people and an unemployment rate near 90%, one can assume that Australia’s immigration nightmare of ‘boat people’ and revival of the Pacific Solution has come to Nauru’s rescue, giving the small island nation new life with an economic stimulus. On the contrary, Australia’s attention to Nauru and the re-installment of offshore asylum-seeker processing and detention centers is exploiting the country’s political and economic instability. Once a policy of the right-wing Howard Government, the Pacific Solution has become nonpartisan among the major parties in Australia, with opposition only remaining among a handful in Labor and minor parties such as the Green Party. Deaths of asylum-seekers by sinking ships, the ever-persistent people-smuggling business with war-torn clients and anti-immigrant sentiments among the Australian public have driven the government to an extreme policy measure that was intended to be temporary.

The Pacific Solution creates a legal gray zone in which asylum-seekers are currently deprived of recourse to Australian law and can be detained for upwards of five years. Rather than following recommendations from the United Nations to only utilize offshore facilities as a temporary measure, the Labor Government is establishing new, dangerous precedents by setting its policy of exploitation literally in concrete by building housing to hold upwards of 1,500 asylum-seekers on Nauru alone. The Supreme Court of Nauru has perhaps been the country’s saving grace, with the President and asylum-seekers both turning to the court to solve their problems.

Offshore-processing centers for asylum-seekers were part of the Pacific Solution instituted by the Liberal-National Coalition Government led by Prime Minister John Howard beginning in 2001. This policy was once strongly opposed by Australian Labor Party leaders who rejected the idea that offshore centers, and Nauru in particular, could “stop the people-smugglers’ business model.” In February 2008, the last refugees detained in Nauru under Howard’s plan were sent to Australia and the center closed; at the time, the Labor Government under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called the Pacific Solution  “a cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful exercise introduced on the eve of a Federal election by the Howard Government.” What has changed the situation so that Labor now is unafraid of using Nauru as an offshore-processing and detention center?

One concern voiced by Labor was that Nauru had not acceded to the 1951 UN convention related to refugees and its 1967 protocols. Once Nauru took steps to become party to the convention, the opposition told current Prime Minister Julia Gillard to “swallow her pride” and “pick up the phone to Nauru” instead of making a deal with Malaysia (a state that had also not acceded to the convention).  The ‘Malaysia Solution’ and ‘East Timor Vacation’ are additional stories in themselves – and unlike Nauru those governments were more difficult to sway. 

While trying to craft Labor’s version of the Pacific Solution in 2010, Gillard advocated for using East Timor as an offshore-processing center for asylum-seekers. However, the government of East Timor eventually opposed the plan and passed a unanimous resolution rejecting the proposal. East Timor Member of Parliament Jose Teixeira illustrated the difficulties with using Pacific Island nations as Australia’s own penal colonies. Teixeira said “it’s an unfair burden to put on us as an emerging society, post-conflict, as a society that has a number of social and economic pressures on it. It’s unfair to put that additional pressure” on East Timor.

The same can be said for Nauru, a small island country that has experienced political turmoil over the last two decades. Political power struggles have not been overly violent or utilized a coup d’état, in part because Australia is responsible for Nauru’s defense (meaning Nauru does not maintain defense forces).  Nauru’s political troubles have continued this year. Parliament has not held a regular meeting since early February due to the resignation of two cabinet ministers that caused the government to lose its majority.  President Sprent Dabwido attempted for weeks to dissolve Parliament, but Speaker Godfrey Thoma and the lack of quorum in Parliament stood in his way.

In addition to defense protection, Australia provides development aid to Nauru budgeted at AUD$31.8 million for 2012/13. Opponents of the offshore center argue that at a time of shrinking government budgets, Australia cannot afford to dump funds into these new ‘development projects’ where taxpayer return will be minimal. Over the past four years, “Effective Governance” has been a top goal of development funding and currently around 60% of the total budget . While I do not doubt the overall transparency of AusAID and the commitment of development practitioners, the historically higher level of funding to governance compared to “Sustainable Economic Development” and “Promoting Opportunities for All” are a pathway for the Australian government to have demonstrable influence over Nauru’s political process; this influence allowed for the reopening of offshore-processing center and creation of a permanent mass detention center complex that has impacted the country’s political and economic outlook.

Other changes on the horizon may soon be driven by the Supreme Court in Nauru. The Supreme Court will decide both the political fate of Nauru’s government as well as the fate of asylum-seekers. With many resignations, votes of no confidence and changes of administration over the last two decades, Nauru is lucky to have a functioning Supreme Court that can help facilitate the country’s constitution. To be able to dissolve Parliament and have fresh elections, President Dabwido is considering taking legal action through the Supreme Court; this application to the Supreme Court is likely to take place over the next week. As recently as May 3, Parliament failed to reach a quorum for the fourth consecutive time, continuing to give the president reason to utilize the Supreme Court.

A landmark Supreme Court case involving asylum-seekers set for June includes an application of habeas corpus. Australian barrister Jay Williams and retired US Marine Corps lawyer Michael Mori are part of a “legal dream team formed to challenge the legality of the Nauru detention center.” Mori formerly represented Australian Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks. The team of lawyers are representing the ten detained asylum-seekers facing charges of rioting and willful damage. Williams has been facing a challenge of his own – lack of access to the defendants to prepare an adequate case – which is an infringement of the defendants’ constitutional rights. As a constitutional challenge this ruling could have strong repercussions for Australia’s offshore-processing and detention center.

While Nauru’s government shows signs that they are unable to maintain stability, Nauru additionally lacks significant infrastructure to adequately handle the additional burden of providing for a future thousand-plus residents. The construction efforts for the detention center on Nauru attest to the longevity of the Pacific Solution and the creation of an island full of detainees similar to the US facilities at Guantanamo Bay. Underground cables have been installed for electricity, and water and sewage hook-ups have been difficult among the phosphate field. Additionally, Nauru lacks a modern port; to ship prefabricated accommodation blocks into Nauru, a “causeway of rock and gravel was constructed…and had to be repaired daily.”

While considering the damage that these events are doing to Australia’s regional and international image, the Labor government is pressing onward with development of the offshore-processing and detention center in Nauru. Currently there are more than four hundred asylum-seekers on Nauru, who have now been moved into part of the permanent detention center facilities. One journalist describes the new facilities in Nauru: “unlike the flimsy weatherboard huts used in the first iteration of the Pacific Solution under the Howard government, the new buildings are built to last.” To accommodate 1,500 detainees in a detention camp, there will be a total of ten accommodation blocks costing the Australian government more than AUD$70 million to construct. According to a report, the “initial stage of the project is a twin-storey accommodation centre of about 1000sq m, containing 44 rooms grouped in three pods, connected by covered breezeways. For now, asylum-seekers will sleep two to a room of 4m x 3.5m.”  These new facilities were likely built in response to criticism from the international community and nongovernmental organizations about poor conditions being faced by refugees as well as the impact on local communities.

In December 2012, observers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a scathing report on the facilities and processing operations at Nauru. UNHCR representatives expressed the “need for more information and clarity for asylum-seekers about their situation, and counseling on the procedures and time frames of various steps in line with international standards.” The report also stressed that asylum-seekers should be supplied with “adequate conditions of accommodation, and the legal framework, rules and procedures for processing of transferred asylum-seekers in Nauru should be completed as a matter of urgency.” Having risked their lives on a treacherous journey by boat, asylum-seekers being sent to Nauru and Manus Island detention centers are particularly vulnerable. While they are not being placed in a war zone in Nauru, Australia should not send asylum-seekers, especially when they may have mental, physical and economic problems, into a detention center for an undetermined period without adequate legal and medical provisions.

Despite Australia’s move to improve facilities on Nauru, the most glaring problem remains; asylum seekers will be held in a legal gray zone outside of Australia’s borders and outside of the protections of Australian law. Further, off-shoring asylum-seeker processing serves to restrict journalistic access and the flow of public information to the public. These issues are the crux of the UNHCR insistence that “all asylum-seekers arriving by boat into Australian territory [should] be processed in Australia, consistent with general practice.”Add to this Australia’s dubious political and economic pressures and incentives that the government is applying liberally in order to secure the island as their national penal colony. Australia has the option to use its economic and strategic clout in the Pacific in order to benefit the region and promote humanitarian aims. Taking advantage of the economic woes and political instability in Nauru through the perpetuation and expansion of the Pacific Solution is undermining Australia’s standing among its Pacific island neighbors and in the international community.