Australia Are Hoarding Asylum Seekers on Prison Islands

And then throwing away the key.

Sascha Kouvelis

The State House immigration processing compound on Nauru. Photo by DIAC Images

Increasing numbers of asylum seekers landing on Australian shores are testing the country's immigration and detention policies, and it turns out those policies aren't particularly humane. People caught arriving illegally on small boats are being held in dire conditions in offshore detention centres and some have put themselves on hunger strike or attempted suicide to protest against their treatment, methods Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has said, "will not get them anywhere". Which is unsympathetic at best and borderline sadistic at worst.    

Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s stance is no better, and almost 100 percent more bizarre. According to the leader of the Liberal Party of Australia, it is "unchristian" to attempt to enter his country through the back door, because "if you jump the queue – if you take yourself and your family on a leaky boat – that's doing the wrong thing". I've never heard an attempt to escape war and oppression in your homeland described as "the wrong thing" before, but unfortunately many Australians who condemn asylum seekers seem to agree.      

For whatever reason, the irony of a country made up almost entirely of boat people being fearful of boat people seems to have escaped those with a more conservative viewpoint, leading them to carry on politicising, and therefore dehumanising, the boat people. According to Greens Senator Sarah Hanson Young, that process has led to the asylum seekers being treated more "like animals" than human beings – the Australian government only concerned with finding the best place to crowbar them out of sight and out of mind.

But where's all that fear coming from? Surprise, surprise – according to Pamela Curr from Asylum Seeker Refugee Centre Australia – it's a resentful fear, that the asylum seekers will come along and, “take [Australian citizens'] jobs and houses”. Because that 's exactly how immigration works: as soon as a boatload of poor, marginalised, persecuted people arrive from another country, you're immediately evicted from your home.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Photo by Senator Kate Lundy

Since 2007, more than 33,000 of those people have arrived illegally in Australia by boat, including Hazaras from Afghanistan, Shias from Pakistan, Iranians, Iraqis, Kurds and now the Rohingyas, the stateless people from Burma. Up to 300 people a week arrive in Jakarta on one-way tickets, most likely with the intention to make the crossing to Australia and escape war, terror, oppression and marginalisation in their homelands.

People pay into the thousands – members on a recent Afghan-run boat recently paid up to $5,500 each – to be smuggled across the sea, perfectly aware that they're risking death. Dead bodies are found on a weekly basis and, last month, 98 bodies were found dumped in the water, reportedly after dying of starvation and dehydration en route to Australia, leaving their shipmates no option but to dispose of the bodies, because illegally entering a country with a boat full of dead bodies is never a great idea. 

The UN has now declared the Indian Ocean as one of the “deadliest stretches of water in the world” for people fleeing their country, and the Australian government reintroduced the policy of offshore detention to deal with asylum seekers last August, but the fear of being killed or persecuted in their homelands is obviously enough to override both of those risks. 

Conveniently, the offshore detention centres are located on the Micronesian islands of Nauru and Manus, which allows the Australian government to dump the asylum seekers in the hands of the islands' governments – institutions that barely have the right facilities to process their own refugee claims. Once they're out of Australia, they're essentially forgotten about. Because, by law, Australian immigration can detain someone for as long as they want, plenty of people have described the detention camps as a method of making an example out of anyone who illegally travels to the land down under.     

Three hundred and seventy seven people have been sent to Nauru and over 200 to Manus after the decision was passed last year. According to Pamela – who was present at Parliament when the decisions were made – there was no "selection criteria"; these people were simply selected at random and “dumped in a prison-like environment with no judicial review and no access to the court”. 

Nobody from the press is allowed to visit the islands, so there's been little coverage of what life there is like. The reality is that the detention centres are near enough prisons, albeit ones situated on tropical islands. Pamela put me in touch with some detainees on the island via email – an exclusive access point to find out what people there are really going through. Hediye, an 18-year old asylum seeker currently being held on Manus, described to me how each living area is surrounded by fences, so “they can lock you up in your block”. The rooms are apparently tiny with no air conditioning, just a small fan, bunk beds, two windows and a screen door, leaving detainees completely exposed and making them feel like they're constantly "on show". 

Cleaning facilities at the State House immigration processing compound on Nauru. Photo by DIAC Images

If you're a single man and not lucky enough to be afforded the luxury of one of these rooms, you'll be crammed into tents with up to 13 other people. Sounds great, huh? It gets better – because of the island's location in the tropics, as well as the sweltering sun basically turning the tents into furnaces, the heat is complemented by torrential rainfall that floods the tents. Pamela told me a story of her friend on the island who had witnessed a man recovering from a suicide attempt in a medical tent that was "knee-deep with water". 

Aria, a 29-year-old Iranian refugee being held on Manus, described it as "a nightmare that we think is never going to end”. Aria left Iran because he wanted to play drums in a metal band – a genre that Iran classifies as "evil music" and therefore isn't particularly supportive of – and thought that he might be able to follow his dreams in Australia. Instead, he fears that he and other detainees are losing their youth in detention by just “waiting, waiting, waiting” on the island. 

Understandably, that extended period of waiting can lead to desperation, and suicide attempts are on the rise. On the 27th of February, a man tried to hang himself on Nauru. Pamela recounted to me how he was found just in time to save his life, transferred to a psychiatric hospital in Brisbane and, as soon as he was half-way back on his feet, the government "put him on a plane and sent him back – it's really just ghastly".    

A drawing by 10-year-old Melika, who is currently being held in the Manus detention centre, sent to the author by Pamela Curr. The "BLL23" is Melika's ID number. All people arriving by boat are registered with the first three letters of the name of the boat they came in on and a number, another method of dehumanising the detainees.

Conditions on the island also appear to be getting worse. Water shortages have begun, meaning people have had to go days without showers or functioning toilets, dropping the cherry on top of a cake made out of shit. And it's not just the "seven days without water" that are an issue, Hadiye explained to me, but the fact that "the power goes out for at least eight hours a week". 

Protest letters from detainees on the islands directly address the Australian parliament, questioning whether their detention is fair justice and pleading for them to not "destroy our future or make us crazy" because they would “prefer to die instead of living in Nauru". Hemat and Khadijeh, a young Kurdish couple who were trying to escape Iran before being caught and held on Manus, confirmed that: "It feels like we're at the end of the world," they told me. "We're thinking this isn't life; death is better than existing like this."

A UN report on the conditions of Nauru Island declared how the ongoing delays and confusion in the processing of asylum seekers will have a “significant and detrimental impact" on their "mental and physical health". A similar UN report on Manus island confirmed the inadequacies in the transfer, treatment and processing of asylum seekers, and declared how it is arbitrary detention, making it “inconsistent with the obligations of Australia and Papa New Guinea under international human rights law”.

Another of Melika's drawings.

New laws are currenly being pushed through Parliament, ones that seek to make sure refugees won't have any work rights if they do make it to Australia. “It is a tough policy", Australian Environmental Minster Tony Burke admits, but Australia doesn’t “want to see [the refugees] drowning”.

The new legislation means that any asylum seeker, including those who actually make it to the sandy shores of Oz, will be treated the same as those found offshore. As mentioned, they will have no work rights, limited accommodation and financial support and could be sent to one of the offshore detention centres at any point. Basically, the rights of the refugee will be completely undercut. 

The Australian government released figures last year that highlighted how 90 percent of the cases processed found the asylum seekers to be genuine refugees, so why the prison-like detainment and not a better form of assistance? On top of those figures, the people keep coming in by sea, despite the fact the prospects for them in Australia are getting increasingly worse – so, the detention deterrent clearly isn't working. Unfortunately, the priority of sealing the vote seems to to have put humanity and morality at the bottom of the pile for Australia's competing politicians.  

As Zohreh Yousefian, an Iranian refugee being held on Manus, told me, "My brother and I risked our lives in the hope of having freedom, safety, tranquillity and living in peace. Just remember, I'm a human like you, and I have my own rights in such a short life to live free." Unfortunately for Zohreh and the hundreds of other refugees trying to make a better life for themselves in Australia, the government there are doing just about everything they can to make sure that will never be possible.

Follow Sascha on Twitter: @SaschaKouvelis

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