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Lawless Places: the Plight of Australia’s Asylum Seekers on Manus and Nauru

On Nauru, an island less than half the size of New Haven, many detained migrant children refuse to eat, sleep, or speak. Melbourne-based psychiatrist Louise Newman describes this phenomenon as resignation syndrome, a condition in which an individual essentially “gives up on life.” Self-harm and suicide attempts are common in Nauru’s detention centers.

“Feelings of hopelessness and demoralization are universal,” Newman told The Politic as she reflected on her experience working with asylum seekers on the island.

As a result of Australia’s immigration policies, asylum seekers from several countries, including Iran, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, are trapped on the Pacific islands of Manus and Nauru. In 2013, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison (now prime minister), implemented the “Stop the Boats” policy, categorizing all asylum seekers who arrive to Australia’s shores by boat as “Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals” (UMAs). Throughout 2013, UMAs were moved to offshore processing centers, without hope for resettlement in Australia. Manus, which is part of Papua New Guinea, received only men, while men, women, and children were sent to Nauru.

Virtually no asylum seekers have reached Australia by sea since 2014, because the Australian Navy intercepts and re-routes boats headed in that direction. Migrants are sent back, in inflatable lifeboats or in tow of Australian military vessels, to their countries of origin or to their ports of departure in a policy the government calls “Operation Sovereign Borders.” Australia, however, is a signatory of the UN Refugee Convention, which prohibits refoulement, or the return of migrants to countries where they would be subject to persecution.

Australia has a long and complicated history with offshore detention. When it was originally prompted in 2001, the offshore centers on Manus and Nauru were used temporarily and sparingly—only some maritime arrivals were moved to the islands, and 70% of these migrants were resettled in Australia.

The processing centers on Manus and Nauru were shut down in 2004 and 2008 respectively, but then were reopened in 2013 due to an astronomical increase in maritime arrivals between 2010 and 2013—by some estimates, numbers jumped from 7,000 to nearly 20,000. Many of those detained in 2013 remain on the islands today, because the Australian government has sworn that no migrants from either of the islands will ever be resettled in Australia.

Under the rules of the UN Refugee Convention, signatories, like Australia, are obligated to provide asylum to those legitimately requesting it. But Canberra diverts resettlement responsibility to Manus and Nauru, making Australia the only country in the world that has other nations process its asylum seekers. And for the islands, which receive payment for detaining people, offshore processing is a “money-making enterprise,” as Newman put it.  

In 2016, Papua New Guinea’s supreme court ruled the detention center on Manus unconstitutional. In response, officials at the Manus detention center have forcibly transferred detainees to new facilities closer to the town of Lorengau, where they are allowed to roam outside of the detention center, supposedly allowing them to integrate into the community while they await status determination. The facility on Nauru has also become an “open” processing center.

However, most migrants are too fearful of the local communities to stray far from their housing accomodations at the processing centers. Additionally, the UN Refugee Agency reported that asylum seekers are warned by guards to come back to the facilities by 6pm, because of fears of violence against migrants by locals. Louise Newman, the psychiatrist who has worked with migrant women and children from Nauru, told The Politic that Manus and Nauru are “lawless places.”

According to Newman, local residents of both islands deeply resent the migrant communities. There have been numerous violent attacks on asylum seekers, including a 2014 attack in Manus that resulted in the death of Reza Barati, a 23 year-old Feyli Kurd from Iran. During the same attack, several other migrants were also injured when island locals came to the detention center armed with guns, machetes, pipes, and sticks.

There are three options for asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru: go back to their countries of origin; for those given refugee status, settle in the island communities, despite fears of violence and poverty; or hope for resettlement in a third country while remaining in the processing facilities indefinitely. Most people choose the last option. Under an Obama-era deal, the United States agreed to resettle up to 1,250 people from the islands. President Trump has committed to honoring the deal, but so far, fewer than 200 people have left from Manus and Nauru for the U.S.

Conditions in the processing facilities are “extremely primitive,” according to Hayley Cull, the Director of Advocacy at Plan International Australia, a children’s rights charity that lobbies the Australian government to provide migrant families with more permanent solutions. While Plan International Australia does not advocate for a specific solution, they ask that those in government immediately remove children from detention.

Cull told The Politic, “Nauru can’t be described as anything else but a nightmare.”

She explained that families have been enduring extremely hot temperatures, few activities or recreational experiences for children, and educational services that are “minimal at best” and far below the standard that these children “rightfully deserve.” Newman added that “at the bare minimum,” people are coping with the trauma from persecution in their home countries, their perilous journey to Australia, and their condition of indefinite exile.

Official figures on sexual assault rates on Nauru are unavailable. Newman said, “I do not know of a single [migrant] woman on the island [of Nauru] who has not been sexually assaulted.”

And, among the most significant hardships for children, according to Newman, is “watching their parents mentally break down in front of them.” Some of those parents, who are contending with mental illness, physically and verbally abuse their children. Minors are further subjected to abuse from guards at the detention centers and locals. Amnesty International found that 88% of detainees on Manus Island were suffering from either PTSD, depression, or both.

Newman works with human rights attorneys to get children off of the island, because, she said, “people do not get better on Nauru. You cannot get better on Nauru…Some of these children might very well die: that’s what we’re facing.” Australia does allow for the temporary transfer of detainees to the mainland for medical emergencies. On October 23, 2018, eleven children were evacuated to Australia for mental health treatment.

More than 2,000 reports from officials on Nauru, leaked in 2016 and originally reported on by The Guardian, corroborate claims from activists that guards are mistreating detainees. More than half the reports detail abuse against children, although children made up only 18% of the detention center’s population at the time that these files became public. One report described a guard chasing and subsequently punching a child in the back of the head for refusing to leave the volleyball court area. Another file details that a man cut himself to the point that he was “cold to touch, shivering slightly, and had a weak pulse” when officials found him.

Newman also told The Politic about an inmate she works with named Maryam*, who refuses to see the face of her newborn baby. While Maryam was pregnant, a guard told her that having a child would not “free her” from exile on Nauru. Realizing the conditions that her baby would have to live through on the island, Maryam became increasingly depressed and said that she would kill herself after giving birth. While Newman has continued to work with Maryam through her postpartum depression, the baby is under the care of its father, Maryam’s husband, who is underprepared and overwhelmed. Like many parents on the islands of Manus and Nauru, he feels incredible guilt for bringing a child into a life of exile. Newman said another parent told her, “I’ve created this child, and they are no one.”

In Australia, there is little political opposition to the immigration policies that created these detention centers—the issue of immigration has not turned into a right versus left issue among elected officials, as it has in the United States. Tanya Jackson-Vaughan, executive director of the Sydney nonprofit Refugee Advice & Casework Service (RACS), said in an interview with The Politic that the opposition Labor Party refuses to challenge Morrison’s administration on immigration for fear of looking “weak on security and weak on borders.” Jackson-Vaughan wishes the media would highlight the plight of migrants on Manus and Nauru, but she says reporting in Australia has a strong conservative bias due to the influence of Australian-American media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who founded Fox News in the U.S. and also owns more than two-thirds of the Australian newspaper market.

Hayley Cull of Plan International Australia added, “I think the vast majority of Australians, if they really understood what children were experiencing on these islands, would be opposed [to the detention centers].”

Plan International Australia recently joined a coalition of 30 human rights organizations in a campaign called “Kids Off Nauru” to pressure the Australian government into releasing children from offshore processing. Cull explained, “What we need is to make as much noise as possible about this…as long as people stay silent, politicians will continue working as if these policies are acceptable.”

Claire Higgins, a senior researcher and historian at the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, agrees that much of the public is unaware of the extent of human rights violations on Manus and Nauru. But she also told The Politic that “controlling immigration has been an anxiety deeply entrenched in the Australian psyche” as a “white, settler society.” Higgins discussed the White Australia Policy, which from 1901 to 1978, heavily restricted non-white immigration to Australia. She said that fears of crime and terrorism after September 11 exacerbated xenophobia, but “that anxiety already existed here.”

President Trump seems to admire Australia’s hardline immigration policy. From a phone conversation reported in The Guardian in August 2017, when discussing the detention centers on Manus and Nauru, Trump told former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, “That is a good idea. We should do that too. You’re worse than I am.”

Trump was quickly angered by Turnbull’s insistence that he follow through on the Obama-era deal to resettle some of the detained migrants in the United States, saying he didn’t need more “Boston bombers.”

Jackson-Vaughan says, “I think America learned very well from Australia,” referring to the “Zero Tolerance Policy” implemented by the Trump administration in the summer of 2018, in which Border Patrol agents took children away from their parents as they crossed the US-Mexico border. Jackson-Vaughan says the most parallel practice between the Australian and Trump models was “detaining children to deter.”

Higgins warned that the Australian model is not one to follow, because “it has terrible human costs and creates more problems than it addresses.”

And because of the reactive nature of offshore processing, Australia remains with no real solution for the resettlement of roughly 500 men on Manus and around 600 people on Nauru—38 of whom are children.

On October 27th, protesters gathered in Sydney and Melbourne to demand that asylum seekers be brought to Australia. In recent months, Morrison’s administration has been feeling mounting pressure from activists and from initiatives such as “Kids Off Nauru.”

Five days later, on November 1, George Brandis, the Australian high commissioner to the UK, confirmed the government’s intentions to remove all children from Nauru by the year’s end. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton insists that the transfer to Australia will be temporary and for medical treatment. It’s unclear what the Morrison team plans to do with these children and their families afterwards. For the asylum seekers, uncertainty is nothing new.


*Maryam is a pseudonym used to protect the woman’s privacy.