Nauru’s refugee stain and Australia’s complicity

July 5, 2023
Photo: Zebedee Parkes

The last refugee, for now, has left the small, guano-producing state of Nauru. For a decade, the Pacific Island state served as one of Australia’s offshore prisons for refugees and asylum seekers, a cruel deterrent to those daring to exercise their right to seek asylum via the sea.

Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Collective, suggested that the legacy on Nauru “will forever stain the record of both sides of Australian politics”.

The absence of refugees in Nauru’s detention facility does not herald its closure. The Anthony Albanese government has, according to federal budget figures, promised to spend $486 million this year on the facility.

The Department of Home Affairs continues to tersely state that the government’s position “on maritime smuggling and irregular maritime ventures has not changed. Any person entering Australia by boat without a valid visa will be returned or taken to a regional processing country for protection claims assessment. Unauthorised maritime arrivals will not settle in Australia.”

For those concerned about the welfare of persons held in captivity, Home Affairs makes this feeble assurance: “All transitory persons in Nauru reside in community accommodation and have access to health and welfare services. Transitory persons have work rights and can operate businesses.”

These people have evidently not been to the prison idyll they so praise. But there were “currently no minors under regional processing arrangements” on the island.

It was also revealed in Senate estimates that the government would continue forking out $350 million each year to maintain the Nauru facility as a “contingency” for any future arrivals.

A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said the processing centre was “ready to receive and process any new unauthorised maritime arrivals, future-proofing Australia’s response to maritime people-smuggling”.

Another unsavoury aspect to this cruel cost to the budget is the recipient of such taxpayer largesse. Labor has maintained the contract with the United States prison company, Management and Training Corporation (MTC), which is responsible for running the facilities till September 2025 at the cost of $422 million.

MTC has a spotty resume, though it trumpets its record as a “leader in social impact”. Impact is certainly not an issue if maladministration, wrongful death, poor medical care and a failing performance in rehabilitation count in the equation.

Then Arizona governor Dough Ducey in 2015 cancelled MTC’s contract after a withering state department of corrections report into a riot at Kingman prison which identified “a culture of disorganisation, disengagement and disregard for state policies”.

As a 2021 lawsuit filed in the District Court of the Southern District of California alleged, MTC “is a private corporation that traffics in human captivity for profit”.

The very fact that MTC Australia advertises itself as a provider of “evidence-based rehabilitation programs and other services to approximately 1,000 male inmates in Australia” begs the question as to why they need to oversee refugees and asylum seekers in the first place.

The answer is glaringly evident: anyone daring to make the perilous journey across the seas to the world’s largest island continent is presumptively seen as criminal, trafficked by actual criminals.

Since July 2013, 3127 people who sought sanctuary found themselves in carceral facilities in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Manus Island. They were told they would never resettle on the mainland and were duly euphemised “transitory persons” to be hurried on to third country destinations, if not returned to their country of origin.

Outsourcing its responsibility to protect citizens and shield vulnerable arrivals from harm has become a matter of dark habit for Australian governments.

Many of those remaining refugees held on the mainland are the subjects of acute care, and all await transfer to third countries, such as Canada under its private sponsorship program, the United States, New Zealand or other countries.

In the meantime, 80 people remain in PNG. The situation there is marred by a fundamental legal peculiarity. In October 2017, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea found the Manus Island Centre to be both illegal and unconstitutional. (PNG, unlike Australia, has a constitution prohibiting violations of personal liberty, even for non-PNG nationals.)

Its closure led to the removal of the detainees to various transition centres devoid of basic amenities, including water, electricity and medical support.

Both PNG and Australia have squabbled over responsibility, despite the fact that the latter exercises control over the facilities and those being held in them.

Emilie McDonnell of Human Rights Watch deemed it indisputable “that Australia bears primary responsibility for those in offshore detention under its policies and has an ongoing legal duty to find a durable solution”.

The offshore concentration camp system established and prosecuted by successive federal governments has become the envy for autocrats, populists and reactionaries the world over.

Fact-finding missions have been made by European Union member states. The model is mesmerising officials in Britain. Its cruelty and suffering are beyond doubt: 14 deaths since 2012, marked by gross medical neglect, suicide and murder by overly enthusiastic guards.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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