Last year, The Age’s Michael Gordon wrote about the arrival of the first group of asylum seekers at Nauru’s Topside facility and declared that the new Nauru plan would be a marked departure from the hardship of Nauruan detention under John Howard’s Pacific Solution. Labor’s new plan would mean that asylum seekers would no longer have to endure overcrowding, washing clothes in salt water and the inhumanity of living in camps run like detention centres. Most importantly, the new Nauru facility would not be remembered as a “kind of Micronesian Alcatraz” like its earlier incarnation because there had been a clear move away from the sentiment of the Pacific Solution: that asylum seekers who came to Australia were to be punished as a deterrent.
Salvation Army Leaks
However, the no-advantage policy enacted by the Gillard government has taken Australian refugee politics back to the bad old days. In June this year, New Matilda and Detention Logs (an organisation that publishes information on conditions and incidents in Australia’s detention centres) received documents leaked by the Salvation Army that contained a number of worrying disclosures about the Topside facility. These included that staff and asylum seekers were advised to carry sticks to fend off dog attacks and that the various agencies contracted to run the detention centre were ill-equipped and unprepared for the arrival of asylum seekers on site. The documents also show that processes to block media access to Topside were far more refined and practiced than co-ordination of meals, asylum seeker hand-overs and “cut-down” procedures in the case of asylum seeker self-harm. Reading these documents it is no surprise that unauthorised media visits to detention centres have been placed at the same threat level as bomb threats. You can access them yourself, here.
Two days before the first arrival of asylum seekers at Topside, International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) reported that they had not received a shipment of medical kits and thus did not have the necessary supplies to provide adequate medical care. The next day, quarantining had to be established after it was found that a staff member had contracted dysentery and compromised some of the amenities on site. Despite this and the known dysentery epidemic in one of Nauru’s suburbs, staff were forced to rely on the use of “toilet buckets” until the completion of their amenities nearly a week later.
Even when the staff amenities were completed, staff were still reporting shortages of adequate medical supplies,hats for the asylum seekers and established shade. Also, washing machines had been installed and connected to electricity but not to water.
Not long after, Wilson’s Security brought up “the introduction of possible weapons into Topside” at the daily operations meeting but it is unclear from the documents alone whether this refers to weapons used by staff or weapons made by asylum seekers. In any case, Wilson’s approach to providing security went well beyond ensuring perimeter security: guards were instructed to keep eyes and ears open at all times when near asylum seekers, a Joint Intelligence Group was established between Wilson’s and the Nauruan police and, less than a day after the arrival of asylum seekers, Wilson’s was advised that their proposed response to finding a lighter in the shower area breached the Immigration Act.
It is likely that many of these problems could have been prevented if the Government had taken the time to ensure Nauru was in satisfactory condition before deciding to send asylum seekers there. The question of whether this decision was made in response to assessments from the Defence and Immigration departments or as a political response to criticism from the Liberal-National Coalition cannot be answered without access to the relevant Cabinet and departmental documents. Yet it is clear that the then Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, had expedited the opening of the facility and expected praise rather than criticism for taking less than a month to arrange transfers to Topside. When interviewed by the BBC’s Newsnight in June this year, Nauru’s former Foreign Minister, Keiren Keke, said “the set up was too quick… the minimum sort of time frames we had talked about were three months to be able to have some basic facility operating, and certainly our expectation was more along the lines of six months… To have something up in a month was really unrealistic and we’ve seen the consequences of that.”
When Amnesty International conducted its Topside inspection in two months after the facility’s reopening they found that there was a substantial risk to asylum seekers’ physical and mental health. The inadequacies of the tents being used to accommodate asylum seekers, high humidity, extreme heat, pests, overcrowding and flooding meant that asylum seekers were suffering from skin diseases, a number of suicide attempts had been made and as many as 300 men had engaged in a hunger strike in the fortnight before Amnesty’s arrival. Amnesty also reported that there was no capability to process asylum claims at the time of their visit and in a report for the ABC’s Lateline three months later a spokesperson stated this was still the case. Although DIAC had begun processing claims in March, five months after the facility opened, none of the nearly 20,000 asylum seekers who arrived after no-advantage was instituted had had their claims finalised by the end of May. Amnesty’s key findings can be found here.
Indefinite detention for boat arrivals and highly restrictive bridging visas (that leave asylum seekers with no right to work and minimal support to maintain a basic quality of life) clearly show that the Labor government’s no-advantage policy is no more than the Pacific Solution 2.0. Yet the most worrying element of the Australian government’s asylum seeker policy is the tight control of information about the conditions and treatment of asylum seekers in offshore detention. The location of the Topside facility and the Manus Island centre outisde of Australian territories has played a major role in this, as the Australian government considers these centres to be under the sovereignty of the Nauruan and Papua New Guinean governments, despite their being funded, staffed and run by the Australian government.
Offshore processing absolves the Australian Government of its humanitarian obligations.
Neither Topside nor the Manus Island facility are listed on the Department of Immigration and Customs (DIAC) website, which provides location, contact and visiting information for every other detention centre run by the Australian Government. Earlier in the year the Australian Human Rights Commisioner had to seek legal advice about whether she was able to inspect these facilities as it was unclear whether her remit extended to inspecting Australian government facilities in other sovereign nations. When the Immigration Minister, Brendan O’Connor, was asked about the Commissioner’s difficulties in accessing the Manus Island facility he deflected the question by stating it was an issue that could only be addressed by the Papua New Guinean government and that the Manus Island facility was not without scrutiny due to inspections having been conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison and Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young. Of these, only the Shadow Minister did not condemn the conditions on Manus Island.
Journalist access to Australia’s offshore processing centres has also been almost non-existent: no reporters have been allowed to visit the Manus Island facility since it opened and the media access blocking protocols at Topside have proven largely successful as well. When the BBC’s Nick Bryant, the only journalist so far permitted to film at Topside, visited Nauru he was barred from talking to any asylum seekers directly and he mentioned that there had been concern in DIAC that his coverage of the new facilities and the BBC’s global reach would attract more irregular maritime arrivals. This concern would likely explain why there has been such little coverage of the new facilities since their completion in February: the only Australian media coverage was a paywalled article in The Australian and the Minister’s records show no mention of the new facilities in any of the interviews or media releases made around the time of their completion.
Leaks are the only avenue for honesty and humanity.
Finding exactly what happens in Australia’s offshore processing centres has relied on whistle-blowing, secret camera footage and refugee activists passing on information from asylum seekers to the public. However, one of the major roadblocks for these efforts has been Sandi Logan, the National Communications Manager for DIAC. A prominent and vituperative presence on Twitter, Logan responds quickly to any criticism of DIAC’s procedures and actions and recent exchanges suggest his patience for GetUp!, the Refugee Action Collective and other similar groups has well and truly run out.
In October last year, Logan responded to a Refugee Action Collective press release that stated asylum seekers at Topside were suffering from dysentery by denying that there were any cases of dysentery. When I pointed out that this contradicted the contents of the recently leaked Salvation Army documents, Logan stated that there had been some cases of gastroenteritis that the RAC had allegedly misdiagnosed and that there had been no cases of dysentery at Nauru. After I pressed the point Logan then challenged the medical authority of the people claiming that dysentery had been diagnosed at Topside, saying that he would put faith in IHMS “over RAC or New Matilda any and every day!” Judging by this response Logan was unaware that the documents had been leaked and that the diagnosis of dysentery had been made by IHMS staff.
In a number of weeks Australia will go to the polls and return either the incumbent Labor Party or the Liberal-National Coalition to government. When the Labor Party re-established offshore processing they said they would protect Australia’s borders without returning to the inhumanity of the Pacific Solution. Labor MPs on the hustings like to remind voters that the Labor Party is “the party of compassion”, but the last ten months has shown, in the strongest way possible, that this is not the case. Kevin Rudd has already declared that the Party will “not lurch to the left” on the issue of asylum seeker detention, only hours after Senator Bob Carr indicated the government is looking to make Australia’s refugee assessment system more “hard-edged”. Meanwhile, Tony Abbott was straight to the point in his response to Kevin Rudd’s reinstatement when he said, “The issues in this election are clear: who do you, the people, trust to stop the boats?” [At the time of publishing, Kevin Rudd had just announced a policy to settle any irregular boat arrivals in Papua New Guinea and end refugee settlement of boat arrivals in Australia.]
Clearly, whatever the outcome of the election asylum seekers will continue to suffer in the tropical hell of Australia’s offshore processing centres. Both of the major parties have committed themselves to punitive asylum seeker policies that, to quote Julian Burnside QC, seek to “make ourselves look even less desirable than the Taliban.” To reverse this, and to restore humanity to Australia’s immigration system, we must continue to support the work of human rights advocates and groups like the Refugee Action Collective and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.