The Nauru Files and Australia's Dangerous Refugee Rhetoric

On Tuesday August 9th, the Guardian released 2,000 incident reports from Australia’s immigration detention and offshore asylum processing centre on the Island of Nauru, an island in the Central Pacific so remote, that it’s nearest neighbour is Kiribati over 300 km away. According to the Guardian’s analysis, 51.3% of the reports involve children, despite children only making up around 18% of those detained on Nauru. The reports include a guard threatening to kill a boy, and a guard allegedly slapping a child. A teacher at the camp reported that her young classroom helper asked permission for a four minute shower rather than the usual two. The request was only accepted on condition of sexual favours. A report from July 2014 notes that a 10 year old child undressed and invited a group of adults to insert their fingers in her vagina. In September of that year, a girl sewed her lips together. When a guard saw this, he burst out laughing. In total the Guardian counts 7 reports of sexual assault on children, 59 reports of assault on children, 30 reports of self-harm involving children, and 159 reports of threatened self-harm involving children.

Accommodation in the Nauru detention centre

Yet sadly this should come as no surprise to the world. Two years ago, the Chief Psychiatrist responsible for the care of asylum seekers declared that, “If we take the definition of torture to be the deliberate harming of people in order to coerce them into a desired outcome, I think it does fulfil that definition.” Such criticism seemed to have little effect on the Australian government, which argued that is was doing “everything it humanly can” to provide “appropriate medical care.” This is clearly not true, as made clear by the release of these reports. Australia is committing torture in an attempt to stop people from immigrating and has been doing so for some time. This is a flagrant transgression of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which simply states “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The question I wish to ask, is how did Australia, a free and democratic country, reach the point where it was torturing children on a remote Pacific island.

A good starting place to look for answers is the Tampa Affair of 2001. A Norwegian Freighter, the MV Tampa, rescued more than 400 Afghan refugees from their sinking vessel 140km north of Christmas Island. The ship requested permission to land the refugees on Christmas Island. The Australian government responded by refusing permission for the ship to even enter Australian waters and threatened to prosecute the captain as a people smuggler if he did so. The captain attempted to turn towards Indonesia, yet upon noticing that the ship was turning, the refugees became agitated. Fearing that the refugees might either jump ship or riot, the captain returned on his course towards Christmas Island. The Australian government, unimpressed with this turn of events, responded by deploying the Special Air Service Regiment to board the ship and to stop it from docking at Christmas Island. Ultimately, the refugees were then transported by the Australian Navy to two detention camps on the Island of Nauru. This was the beginning of Australia’s ‘Pacific Solution’.

The Pacific Solution was comprised of multiple strands, but the most important one was that all asylum seekers who arrived by boat would have their claims processed not in Australia, but at offshore detention centers on Manau in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Australian Prime Minister John Howard proclaimed that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” The aim was to deter future asylum seekers from trying to enter the country by boat. In 2002, the year after the policy was implemented, only one boat with a single asylum seeker attempted to reach Australia. According to Howard’s supporters, this was proof that he “stopped the boats,” although critics have argued that this in fact had nothing to do with Howard’s policies. They instead note that the fall of the Taliban regime led to a global decline in Afghan refugees, which had been one of the biggest groups seeking asylum in Australia. Some also point to the rise in temporary visas, meaning that refugees no longer needed to risk their lives in a boat. The detention center was finally closed in 2007 after 6 years by Howard’s successor, Kevin Rudd. Problems with the camp, including a lack of water and overcrowded tents, coupled with the fact that most the people who arrived by boat were discovered to be genuine refugees had persuaded the new Labour government to shut it down. It was however reinstated in 2012, a decision sparked by a rise in the number of boats arriving. It is the horror of this second iteration of the detention centre that the incident reports published by the Guardian cover.

However, none of this quite answers the question in hand. It is simply an explanation of events: it still begs the question of why the Howard government followed by the Labour government in 2012 both responded so aggressively to asylum seekers arriving by boat that they would detain them on Pacific Islands in secretive detention centres. To try and answer this, we must turn the clock even further back to the 1970’s, when the term ‘boat people’, entered the Australian vernacular. The first wave of boats was a symptom of the Vietnam war. Over half the Vietnamese population was displaced in this period, many fleeing to neighbouring countries, but some decided to embark on the voyage to Australia in any boat they could. Whilst the first boat people were initially received with sympathy, this did not last very long. Public debate began to focus on issues of unemployment, and of boat people “jumping the queue.” The language of a “flood”, “invasion” and “yellow peril” quickly followed, until some were even claiming that the people who arrived by boat were “pirates, rich businessmen, drug runners, and communist infiltrators.” This was the start of a growing trend of anti-boat people feeling in Australia, so that by 2001, 77% of Australians wanted to limit the number of boat people arriving.

The implicit racism is hard to ignore, especially with the language of ‘yellow peril.’ Australia has a long history of pursuing a racist immigration policy, all the way back to 1901, with the White Australia policy. There was a mix of economic concerns such as competition between British and Chinese gold miners, and union opposition of plantation owners importing Pacific islanders as cheap labour in the sugar plantations of Queensland, as well as cultural concerns about Chinese men sleeping with white women, “a fate worse than death.” The Australian government decided that it needed to protect the jobs and purity of white Australians and passed the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. The aim of the act was to halt all non-European immigration to Australia. Non-Europeans were not allowed to immigrate for half a century, until 1958, with the passing of the Migration Act. As more and more non-Europeans migrated, a backlash began, particularly against Asian immigration and the concept of multiculturalism. This culminated politically, with the launch of then opposition leader John Howard’s One Australia Policy. He argued that the rate of Asian immigration needed to be slowed down to protect social cohesion. It was then the same John Howard who as Prime Minister set up the first detention camps on Nauru in 2001.

What we are seeing at the detention and offshore asylum processing centre at Nauru is not an isolated and deeply regrettable incident. It is the culmination of a long process, whereby Asian immigrants were looked down upon, discriminated against, belittled, and ultimately tortured and abused. Given this conclusion, it is hard to avoid thinking about Mr. Donald J. Trump, a man who up to this point has achieved surprising electoral success by calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists and promising to ban all Muslims, or to think of the rise of the Front National in France where Marine Le Pen compared Muslims praying on the streets due to insufficient mosque space as being like the Nazi occupation, saying “This is an occupation. Sure, there are no armored vehicles, no soldiers, but it’s still an occupation, and it weighs on the inhabitants.” If the events at Nauru are to serve any purpose, it is to remind the world of the long term dangers of poisonous rhetoric towards immigrants. When an otherwise sane government can preside over a system that repeatedly abuses and tortures children, it should give us all pause for thought.

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