After a decade of breaching international law by detaining asylum seekers who arrived by boat on poor island nations, the Australian government is continuing to hold around 130 refugees offshore: 88 in Papua New Guinea and 51 on Nauru.
These people, who arrived in Australian waters about 10 years ago, were some of the Earth’s most desperate when they showed up. Yet, Australian governments have slowly and purposely tortured them via indefinite detention, failing to provide safe asylum and imposing deplorable conditions.
Greens Senator Nick McKim introduced the Migration Amendment (Evacuation to Safety) Bill 2023 on February 7, drafted with Labor’s policy settings in mind, to provide a set of laws that permitted the government to simply bring the remaining refugees to Australia.
Between the bill being introduced and being put to the vote on March 8, the two remaining refugees on Nauru went on a hunger strike in protest at their confinement. They were brought to Australia because of their suicide attempt.
But when the bill was put to the Senate on March 8, the Albanese government voted against it with no clear reason why. This is despite these refugees suffering 10 years of psychological and physical harm.
Coming immediately after the hunger strikers were airlifted to safety, the bipartisan decision to vote down this bill sent a clear message to the remaining offshore detainees: the only way off their island prison is via extreme self-harm.
Who’s running the show?
“They’ve been attacked on the islands. They’re in fear of their lives from local gangs,” said People Just Like Us spokesperson Fabia Claridge. “They can’t make any plans. They’re just in limbo. And this is a deliberate policy.”
The advocate questioned why Labor voted to keep innocent people on the islands when it had promised a more humane approach to offshore detainees. It had also promised to end the punishment of asylum seekers, regardless of their mode of transport here.
Long-term refugee rights supporter Jane Salmon made it clear that the refugees left off-shore have been singled out arbitrarily.
“When the wellbeing of vulnerable people is sacrificed to intellectual laziness or strategic furphies like ‘Stop the boats’, you don’t have a democracy worth defending,” Salmon said.
“This is crucifying refugees for the benefit of golden ticket immigrants who buy up investment properties.”
Both Claridge and Salmon questioned why Labor continues to treat these refugees in such a manner, suggesting that either Coalition opinion still weighs heavily in the Home Affairs Department or if the defence department still steers the ship.
No choice but to starve
Monir Ullah, another offshore detainee, started a hunger strike on March 5. Salmon wrote to home affairs minister Clare O’Neil in early March, alerting her to the man’s deteriorating health and requesting that he be brought to Australia for the medical treatment he has long been seeking.
“Is it going to be that they have to put their own lives at risk? He’s already sick. All of them are sick. Those in PNG and Nauru are already sick, both mentally and physically,” Claridge told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “Where do we go from here?”
“And what does this mean for Labor?” she asked. “Many of us believe it is just going to see thousands more voting for independents and Greens, because Labor has completely abandoned human rights.”
[Paul Gregoire writes for Sydney Criminal Lawyers where this article first appeared.]