The Detention Archipelago: Australia’s Pacific Solution

Australia, August 2001. Federal elections are to be held in November of this year and the incumbent government, The Coalition, headed by Prime Minister John Howard are trailing in the poles to the Australian Labour Party (ALP). The centre-right Coalition’s popularity has been waning in recent years due to unpopular economic reform policies and rising oil prices. Their opposition, the centre-left ALP, has been winning a series of state and territory elections coming up to the federal election.

In recent years, the number of ‘boat people’ or political or economic refugees hoping to reach Australia’s shores by boat had risen slightly. This has proven to be a contestable issue due to the moral concerns of such refugees playing into the hands of illegal people smugglers and exposing themselves and their families to risks at sea.

What could have been a subject for reasonable debate and effective policy was seen by those in Canberra as a potentially election saving issue, with the potential to salvage the federal campaign.

On August 24, 433 predominately Afghani refugees were rescued from a failing fishing vessel by the MV Tampa, a Norwegian container ship, which was directed by Australian forces. In defiance of international maritime and refugee law, the Tampa was refused entry into Australian waters and Australian Military Special Forces commandeered the vessel. The Coalition government had their wedge issue and capitalized on it. That same day the “Border Protection Act” was drawn up. Though it was later voted down in the opposition-controlled parliament it set the foundation for 15 years of entrenched off-shore processing in remote island centres. Those 433 refugees would be the first inductees to pass through a Nauru-based processing centre. Many were relocated within months, but a handful remained in detention for years, a situation that 17 years later would become the norm.

Today Australia has extended the scope of the “Pacific Solution” to include three separate detention centres. These centres are located on Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea, Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian ocean and on Nauru, a tiny Pacific nation. The first established was on Nauru which is the third smallest nation state in the world, only 21 square kilometres in size. Nauru is economically and politically dependent on Australia as a phosphate mining boom which had lead the inhabitants to be some of the richest per capita in the world during the 60s and 70s collapsed. In the wake of the immense strip mining operation the island ecology was left devastated, leaving the government no other recourse apart from seeking aid from its largest and most powerful regional neighbour, Australia.

Australia, using its political and economic leverage over the smaller nation established the Nauru Regional Processing Centre in 2001. This iteration of Australia’s camp system lasted until 2007 whereby it was shut down by Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd who proclaimed that “it is costly, unsustainable and wrong as a matter of principle.” Moving to dismantle all aspects of the “so-called Pacific solution” which had been riddled with controversy surrounding the living conditions and rights violations of the refugees. The camps were seen as a determent for future refugees hoping to reach Australian asylum by boat. As such they have been designed punitively, resembling prisons more than long term habitation for families and children. According to Amnesty international, and against the Australian government’s line, the locations of the detention centres were chosen “because of their remoteness, isolation and their relative willingness to cooperate with Australia’s harsh policies towards refugees and asylum seekers in exchange for continued and substantial development assistance.”

As such, there have been numerous reports of local authorities from both Nauru and Manus Island failing to take responsibility for the refugees, rather considering them an imposition and unfavourable. When the first Nauru regime was dismantled in its 7th year the then Australian Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Chris Evans dubbed it a “cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful exercise.” All those who were in indefinite detention in 2008 were resettled in Australia with permanent residence visas.

Yet, what might seem to be a minor but important victory for the humanitarian cause is in reality better equated to diversionary politics. Late the very same year that the above politicians decried the “Pacific Solution” and celebrated its foreclosure the Christmas Island Immigration Reception and Processing Centre was completed. Commissioned in 2005, the new facility would continue the same processes that were found to be unjust and inhumane on Nauru, only this time they would be conducted outside the limelight of the political arena. The capacity of the centre slowly increased over the next 2-3 years until it exceeded capacity in June of 2013. Those who were detained and processed on Christmas Island in this time were mostly settled in Papua New Guinea where they were met with largely inadequate and unsafe lodgings, the PNG judicial system and police have been reported to be prejudiced against the new arrivals. Various humanitarian crises the world over contributed to the flow of forced migration and the Australian government’s “Turn back the boats” policy was seen to be a failure.

In 2012 a Labour government reopened the Manus and Nauru centre’s in the face of political pressure and a country seemingly without the framework or willingness to adequately care for these new arrivals. This second regime of the Pacific Solution which is currently still in operation would see the solidification of the detention centres administrative apparatus, institution harsh anti-media non-disclosure policy for all staff that would service the centres.

Nick Martin, author of The Diary of a Nauru Doctor was a senior medical officer deployed to Nauru between November 2016 and August of 2017. Martin wrote the book in response to what he describes as the physical, mental and bureaucratic hell that Australia has constructed through the Nauru detention centre. In vivid detail Martin describes how the conditions in the camps reduced its inhabitants to “monosyllabic versions” of their former selves, needing a myriad of agencies and helpers to “to stop [them] from killing themselves”. Martin paints a picture of destitute hopelessness where inmates become so exhausted as to “no longer even [be] angry enough to fight against the injustice of it all”. This hopelessness he describes extends to the staff serving the centres as well. Martin describes a complete shirking of responsibility for the refugees mental and physical health, instead becoming as dull as those they were tasked with looking over. Ignoring of medical transfer requests has become a matter of principle. Any attempt for an inmate to be transferred to Australia for adequate medical treatment was met with suspicion and most often denial. In 2014 the administration stopped allowing transfer to Australia for abortions. The practice is outlawed on Nauru and the camp authorities felt that the women who were requesting such procedures were getting pregnant as a ploy to be transferred to Australia where they could ask for temporary or legal protection, thus circumventing the four year stay on the island camp. This decision was reversed after years of amateur abortion continually placed women in preventable risk.

Martin also decried implementation of a system whereby inmates are required to identify themselves by their boat number rather than their names. A system which he finds is deliberately dehumanizing and absolutely unnecessary.

What seems like the most telling aspect of Martins story is the risk he underwent in order to just tell the public. The Border Force Act, introduced in 2015 is an extensive and “draconian” non-disclosure agreement, which means that any member of staff that has spent time in the Nauru camp can be punished with imprisonment if they decide to speak up about the atrocities they witnessed or took part in running the camp regime. Martin describes a sense of pervasive suspicion from camp authorities who were always watching for actions which would be deemed as ‘subversive’ and result in a termination of contract. What Australia has fostered on this tiny pacific island is a sense of terror and mistrust often not experienced beyond the borders of strictly Authoritarian states. The dangers of speaking up against the blatant human rights abuses, where innocent, untried stateless people are subjected to appalling conditions, where children have spent their formative years devoid of hope and stripped of their names is a clear indication that the Australian government is as culpable and self-preserving as any of the worst political regimes throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Why else would such an act be introduced if not out of a desire not to be held accountable for what is essentially torture of the most vulnerable people who seek asylum and freedom in Australia.

It is clear to any unbiased observer of Australia’s refugee policy that it is a twofold error. Firstly, it is the product of cynical political maneuvering that exploited people in the most vulnerable position imaginable in order to swing the results of an election. What has grown out of the Howard government’s initial stand has been a decade and a half of real and unnecessary human suffering. Secondly, even if one overlooks the rampant acts of self-harm, destitution, medical and mental health issues for children and adults alike, and allegations of wide spread sexual and physical assault, all of which constitute extreme violations of UN Human Rights policy has the Pacific Solution really worked to achieve its intended aim? The number of arrivals by boat over the past 40 years has been approximately 60,000. This number is almost that the estimated number of visa over stayers from countries such as the US, Britain and Ireland in 2011 alone. That is to say that the ‘problem’ of boat people arriving undocumented in Australia has never prosed any real threat to the sovereignty of this country, these peoples greatest fault is that they were an easy and convenient political tool and nothing more.

Australia’s great humanitarian crisis is explicitly political and totally redundant. It is propped up by a vast bureaucracy which costs taxpayers billions every year. If one were to analyse all humanitarian crises world-wide, I doubt you would find a more inane and avoidable one then the great ‘Pacific Solution’ offers.

Callum Foote


The Organization for World Peace