On July 19, 2013, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stood beside Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and said in a classical Rudd pretentious drone: “You won’t be settled in Australia. You’ll be sent to Nauru or Papua New Guinea for reprocessing and resettlement.”
Effective immediately, everyone who came by boat seeking asylum would never be given protection in Australia.
Four years to the day later, as nationwide vigils called for the evacuation of Manus Island and Nauru were held across the country, a man contacted me from inside the Nauru detention centre. We’ll call him Maziar as he doesn’t want his name known.
Maziar’s story is all too tragically familiar. He and his family fled Iran when they converted to Christianity, which is illegal in Iran and punished by execution. Maziar previously worked in IT and web development. He is in his forties.
He wrote: “I am going to say something untold since these four years.”
He went on to describe how after Rudd’s July 19 announcement the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), divided people (including those who came on the same boat) into three groups when they reached Christmas Island. DIBP then sent one group to Nauru and another to Manus Island. The third remained on Christmas Island before being sent to the Australian mainland on bridging visas.
Maziar can “clearly remember that damn day the day which DIBP wanted to expelled us to Nauru. Still every time I think to that time my tears are came slowly and I feel a strong pain and burnt in my heart.”
Maziar wrote of how people felt during that time when “we were witnessed that our boatmates were going to Australia. But when we thought to our situation we were so frustrated we were living in tents for an indefinite time with uncertainty.”
I had seen no mention of DIBP sending people who had arrived after Rudd’s announcement to Australia. Subsequent searches through the media found nothing.
I found there had been a few attempts in 2013 by the media to follow up on similar stories. But they were stonewalled by DIBP with the “on water matters” mantra.
As with so many stories about the detention system, the truth only comes out when advocates in Australia communicate with people in detention.
Sally Thompson from the Refugee Rights Action Network WA (RRAN) said she first became aware of this happening in late 2014 from stories passed between people on Nauru and Manus Island to advocates in Australia.
Thompson said: “When I began talking to more people on Nauru over the past year I became aware of more specific details of not only boatmates being randomly split but of members of extended families who came together on the same boat being split.”
One boat included an extended Rohingya family of 13 ranging from an 80-year-old great grandmother all the way to her great grandchildren. The great grandmother and one of her grandchildren were among seven family members sent to Nauru. Six remained on Christmas Island and are now living in Australia.
Another boat, LEL809, arrived at Christmas Island on July 25, 2013 with two Indonesian crew and 70 people seeking asylum. Of those 70 seeking asylum, 17 men, women and children were sent to Nauru, 21 men were sent to Manus Island and the remaining 32 were given bridging visas and have since been invited to apply for protection visas in Australia.
The selection, from all accounts, was arbitrary.
Thompson said: “When immigration officials chose who went, they often made a point of choosing vulnerable looking people for offshore to prove how tough they were being.”
RRAN held an action called “Border Farce” last December. “The process is a farce. It has little to do with determining who is genuinely in need of asylum. It is about enforcing and enacting a punitive and cruel system that seeks to deter people who are entitled to seek asylum, or to deny them asylum if they have not been deterred.” People were given lottery tickets to open that showed one of several possible outcomes for people seeking asylum in Australia.
RRAN has since collected numerous statements from people in Manus Island and Nauru describing what happened in the months following July 19, 2013.
Behan: “When we arrived on Christmas Island, we were grabbed by our shoulders by two giant officers and taken to an airplane. We were split by immigration from our boat mates … People who arrived after July 19 are living in Australia while we are here … just thinking and suffering and hopeless nights and days.”
Naeem: “19 July is a falsified claim. Although it had been decided to resettle all boat people in PNG and outside of Australia, in each and every case, there were people who remained on Christmas Island. It’s a clear sign of injustice and violation of their own policy. What was the difference between onshore and offshore boat people who arrived on the same day after 19th July.”
H: “A lot of our boatmates left in Christmas Island were released in mainland Australia. Australian government broke 19 July 2013 rule for them but we are still detained in Manus Island for four years. We have been here as a hostages, not for processing.”
Behnam Satah: “ I am a Kurdish man from Iran who came to Australia by boat in search of safety, after July 19, 2013. At Christmas Island we were divided into two groups, one group went to Australia and the other group of people were exiled by force to Manus Island. Since that time, I have been held captive as a political prisoner in Manus Camp. Still I do not know when we still see freedom.”
Yousof: “We arrived at Christmas Island on 25 July 2013 when I was just 7. At Christmas Island a man came and told us what would happen to us. He chose some families to go to Australia and he chose some men who had come by themselves to go to Australia. The other men who were alone he sent to Manus. My family and my aunt and her family and one more family he chose to go to Nauru. We weren’t told why he picked us for Nauru. We still haven’t been told why.”
In March, RRAN managed to get Greens Senator Nick Mckim to put this matter on notice to Senate Estimates. In April the government admitted that of the people who came seeking asylum via boat since July 19, 2013 “1414 were issued with bridging visas in Australia”.
The answer remains buried in Hansard and has not being picked up by the media.
Why did the Australian government arbitrarily send some people to Australia and left others to endure more than four years of torture on Manus Island and Nauru?
For Maziar “Another torture was started, which was pictures of our boat mates on Facebook and other social media which shows they have lived safely in Australia. They have taken many pictures in most famous places like Sydney Opera House. For years their children are going to best school with high quality of education and my son has not gone to school since 2014.”
Why did the Australian government violate its own policy just days after announcing it?
Thomson thinks “there were several reasons this was done. One was Manus and Nauru wouldn’t have capacity for everyone arriving via boat and the government didn’t want them to become full before pushbacks and refoulment stopped the arrival of further boats. If there were boat arrivals after the camps were full the media could easily become aware that people were being brought to Australia, whereas selectively splitting where people on each boat went wasn’t picked up on.”
If nothing else this clearly shows the policy did not “stop the boats”. It was all about politicking and scapegoating to win elections.
For Maziar this policy was introduced to “push people to breaking point and consequently drive them back [accept deportation to the country they fled] and make a horrible picture for those who want to make journey to Australia by boat.”
Thomson says it is “another example of the Australian government’s callous disregard for those who sought our protection.”
A statement released by people on Nauru on July 31, speaks of their horrors of detention and cries for freedom. They especially mention the trauma the separation of families has created. It reads: “Some of us have children, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives and family in Australia. Our families are heartbroken and devastated from the separation.” [Read the full statement here.]
The government is trying to force people to leave the Manus Island detention centre and move to East Lorengau by cutting off the water and electricity. People who have moved to East Lorengau have suffered a spate of vicious attacks, including machete attacks.
The fact that the Australian government separated people from the same boats that arrived post July 19, 2013 and sent some to Australia shows that the offshore detention centres did not stop the boats. They were only stopped by turning them back to danger in a politically driven cruel policy.
Thomson said: “1414 of the 4533 men, women and children who arrived by boat between 19 July 2013 and 27 July 2014, have been living, working and studying in Australia. The general population has no idea of their presence because they are human beings going about their daily lives, just as their boatmates and family members stuck on Manus and Nauru would be if we #BringThemHere.”