Cruelty of offshore detention of refugees


The Pacific Solution
By Susan Metcalfe
Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2010

Review by Julian Gormly

In The Pacific Solution, Susan Metcalfe primarily focuses on the effect on the lives of those transported to, and detained in, the notorious camps in Nauru and PNG over the period 2001-2008. The Pacific Solution is part script for a well-researched documentary and part personal journal of Metcalfe’s own experiences and relationships with the refugees detained in Nauru, mainly Afghans and Iraqis, and later Sri Lankans and Burmese.

In the introduction, Metcalfe writes: “Inside the camps in Nauru and PNG, people made the best of a disastrous situation. They bonded together to bring up children and survive whatever the future might bring. They experienced sickness and sadness, mental illness, and nightmares; one man died and 23 babies were born.

“Dependence on medication became endemic and self-harm and hunger strikes were too often the only resort when fear and hopelessness took over. Australian politics was the invisible, but always foreboding, presence in their lives — coldly deciding their fates and dictating how much pressure would be applied to their daily existence.”

Facts and figures obtained by Metcalfe from the Department of Immigration are a reminder of the extent and absurdity of the “solution”. From September 2001 to March 2008 a total of 1637 people were detained on Nauru and PNG. The average length of stay in the camps was 501 days. Australia eventually took 705 people, New Zealand 401, Sweden 21, Canada 16, Denmark 6 and Norway 4. Four hundred and eighty-five returned under pressure and inducement to their source countries, (mostly Afghanistan, 420).

Metcalfe gives a lucid account of how third country processing on Nauru and PNG was an immediate response to the Tampa refugees. It “worked a treat” according to buffoon and then-foreign minister Alexander Downer, who claimed it as his own idea. The government of a self-absorbed nation did not see the refugee’s flight from persecution as a human problem. The challenge was not how to provide protection and alleviate suffering but how best to manipulate the situation to its political advantage.

The refugees had to be disposed of somehow.

Metcalfe was an independent advocate and supporter of the Nauru refugees. She was not affiliated with any government or non-government organisation, nor was she part of any political group. She does identify herself as left-wing. She offers no cultural or social analysis of the attitudes to refugees whipped up by the Howard government.

Metcalfe obtained extraordinary access to Nauru and its two camps in 10 trips she made from 2005 to 2007. High profile lawyers, religious leaders, advocates and journalists had all been humiliatingly denied visas to the Pacific island — at the time dependent on Australian aid paid for its cooperation in hosting the camps.

Metcalfe herself was often treated as persona non grata by the Australian government and agencies employed by it, including the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), though she did not publicly talk about her visits or divulge personal information about the refugees.

In seeking to understand “how Nauru could have happened”, The Pacific Solution is dated. The first chapter “It Begins Again” flashes forward, but only to 2007 with the detention of Sri Lankans and Burmese in the by then empty Nauru camps. With unintended irony, the last chapters are titled “In the End Came Rudd” and “Aftermath of a New Beginning”.

Metcalfe’s statement “The Pacific Solution is over” did seem to be true when the camps were closed in March 2008, now we cannot be so sure.

To many NGOs and refugee support groups who should have known better, the closure of the Nauru camps by the Rudd government seemed to signal a new era of humane refugee policy. Detention on Christmas Island was unfortunately supported by some as an acceptable compromise.

The policy of remote detention had already begun with the establishment of a detention centre at Port Hedland by the Hawke government in the early 1990s. Remote detention was designed to coercively deny a person any place in the life of society or its political consciousness. The detained are rendered Orwellian non-persons, as if their humanity never existed.

Metcalfe’s relationships with the refugees were a subversion of this Orwellian plan. Metcalfe pays tribute to the original genius of a letter-writing campaign by more than 1500 people to detained refugees, conceived and coordinated by Walter Schwarz in Bellingen, NSW.

Relationships forged between the letter writers (including Metcalfe) and those detained were the basis of effective subversion. These relationships were sustained by visits to those detained on mainland detention centres in remote locations such as Woomera and Baxter as well as the metropolitan centres. The camp in the former RAAF base at Curtin was always inaccessible to visitors, and is now again being favoured by the government for that reason.

At its best, the letter writers’ personalist morality, driven and informed by relationships, focused on the interests of the refugees, was responsive to their immediate concrete needs, and was not distracted by self-interest. Many of these people made extraordinary sacrifices to expose the inhumanity of mandatory and remote detention.

At its worst, however, a personalist morality based on relationships can descend to a kind of conceit, where those in direct personal relationship regard themselves as having a higher consciousness of what is best for the refugees.

The relationship can become jealously guarded and Metcalfe includes accounts of criticism of her by other advocates that she did not “share” her contacts nor advocate for the refugees on a wider stage.

The departure from the camps of those in these relationships with the letter writers resulted in a kind of hiatus. There can be an unwillingness for the same people to forge the same kinds of often painful relationships with the more recent arrivals. A new cue for action and a new kind of engagement is needed.

The Pacific Solution is readable and well sourced. It does not exaggerate, nor is it laconic or bland. The book conveys the disjuncture between the preoccupations of the politics of the time — “stopping the boats” — and the just claims to humanity of the refugees.

The government of Timor Leste should find The Pacific Solution a useful resource in deciding whether to become the new Nauru, along with other governments approached at the time of the Tampa including Kiribati, Fiji, Palau, Tuvalu, Tonga, French Polynesia and Indonesia.