On June 26 2019, President of the United States Donald Trump tweeted, “These flyers depict Australia’s policy on Illegal Immigration. Much can be learned!” along with pictures of flyers distributed by the Australian government. The flyers had foreboding statements such as “You will not make Australia home”, “You won’t be settled in Australia,” or a simple “No way.” Australia’s immigration policy is just as, if not more, controversial than Trump’s hardline immigration policy for United States. Despair and hopelessness run high on Australia’s offshore detention centres on the islands of Manus and Nauru, and many people on these islands have little hope of leaving. Recently, Australia has deliberately increased the hardships experienced by the detainees, resulting in increased suicide and self-harm rates amongst detainees.
Australia’s national election on May 18 2019 witnessed a return to power of a conservative government that has maintained “hard-line polices intended to deter asylum seekers,” according to the New York Times.
Many of the detainees on Manus and Nauru were cognizant of Australian polls that showed the opposition Australian Labor Party leading before the May election and had hoped a change in immigration policy was on the horizon. When Labor lost, desperation intensified. Additionally, the U.S. government under Trump rejected a resettlement deal reached by the Obama administration to take in more than a thousand of the refugees on the island. CNN reports that there have been dozens of suicide attempts in the last month since the election.
The Australian Director for Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson said, “It’s hard to know how many cases are serious cases of people trying to end their lives or a cry for help, but in any case it’s a big escalation. People are very worried they are going to be completely forgotten about.”
Amnesty International released a report saying, “Australia has used a deliberate system of cruelty to increase the hardship suffered by refugees and asylum seekers in detention centers on Manus Island.” According to the report, the Australian government withdrew all services to its detention centre on Manus and refugees were told they would be transferred to newer centres. The report also indicated that “several refugees have been violently attacked by locals in recent years on Manus Island, in cases that did not result in any prosecutions. The newer facilities now offer less protection than the previous centre – closer to the town of Lorengau and lacking basic security infrastructure like fences.” The refugees staged a peaceful protest, but the Papua New Guinea police forcibly evicted and transferred the refugees.
Amnesty claims that the new facilities are far from safe, and fail to address the fundamental problems with Australia’s offshore processing.
United Nations human rights officials have urged the Australian government to provide medical care to the over 800 refugees on their offshore detention sites.
The Australian government says that its strict border protection policy, which bars settlement for migrants who try to reach the country by sea, has been successful since fewer boats with asylum seekers on board are trying to reach Australia compared to a decade ago. Australia also states that offshore detention has reduced trafficking and deaths at sea. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected an offer from New Zealand to take 150 of the refugees, arguing it would encourage traffickers.
Even if found to be refugees, the asylum seekers are not permitted to settle in Australia and must either go home, hope for relocation to a third country, or remain in Papua New Guinea or the remote island of Nauru, reports CNN.
These refugees come from over a dozen countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Indonesia to escape famine, war, and other hardships. They escaped a situation of hopelessness only to enter another. Some refugees have been waiting on Manus for six years, but Australia’s reluctance properly deal with these people has created a circuit of hopelessness. In despair, these people are committing suicide, yet Australia has done nothing to break the system of helplessness. Australia’s neighbouring country, Papua New Guinea, is a former colony whose own people still do not have widespread access to healthcare and other basic necessities, so the burden falls onto Australia to properly address and resolve the human rights crisis taking place on the islands. Australia’s detention and processing centres are not intended for long-term stay, and they should not be. The Australian government must break the circuit of hopelessness and must create a path for refugees to leave their current situation.
The current situation of the Australian detention centres is a tragedy that must be addressed immediately. A system of hopelessness is not the solution to an immigration influx.