For years, Australia held refugees on islands in the middle of nowhere. But the conditions were so disastrous that some people have now been housed in Australia after all.
“There was this veil of secrecy around the island. Nobody back home knew what was happening in the internment camps,” Mark Isaacs says. They weren’t allowed to tell anyone, says the now author and journalist. They were told that their emails and social media were controlled by the Australian government. “People were fired if they made political comments.”
Isaacs worked for the Salvation Army eight years ago at the Australian offshore internment camp on Nauru, a small island nation in Pacific nowhere. He saw refugees arrive there from Sri Lanka or Iran. They had fled deadly danger in their homeland. But instead of freedom in Australia, uncertainty and heat awaited them. “The condition of the people in the camps became very bad very quickly, their mental health got worse and worse, and they started hurting themselves. They were trying to kill themselves,” Isaacs says. The UN Refugee Agency and Doctors Without Borders also criticized the conditions as inhumane.
Years of scrutiny
Secrecy, cruelty and grotesque waste: These are the hallmarks of the “Pacific Solution,” which Australia used to stop refugees from reaching their country illegally. Instead of deporting them, they were interned while their cases were reviewed. This could take years. There is no time limit for this internment.In this way, Australia wanted to make people return to their homeland. “That’s why they nipped hope in the bud,” Isaacs says. The people had no choice but to persevere in this hopeless situation or return home.
Literary award for refugee
The camps were set up on Nauru and on Manus Island, a Papua New Guinea island. The countries relied on Australia’s financial help and therefore could not refuse, says Mark Isaacs. All this has cost Australia billions of dollars so far. The Kurdish refugee and author Behrouz Boochani was the main person to report on the camps on Manus Island. He drew the attention of a wider public to the inhumane conditions with secret video recordings and text messages that he sent out. His book, No Friend but the Mountains: Texts from Manus Prison, won – absurdly – some of Australia’s top literary awards. From a country whose government doesn’t want him.
“Tour of horrors.”
After six years in the camps, Boochani was granted asylum in New Zealand in 2019. Author Isaacs smuggled himself into Manus Island in 2017 and met Boochani there. “He and one other person took me on the midnight tour of the internment camp,” he said. It was a tour of horrors, he recounts. “They showed me the places where people were locked in solitary confinement – in an immigration camp!”Boochani, as well as Isaacs, told of abuse, of killings, of deaths by neglect. One refugee died of a foot infection because he was not allowed to be taken to a proper medical facility.Many refugees have been denied treatment in Australia by the Australian government. Children with suicidal thoughts were among them, women raped by security personnel, men who self-harmed.
Many interned in hotels
Meanwhile, there are no children left in the camps. Although the Manus Island camp has been officially disbanded, some 130 refugees remain in Papua New Guinea in a kind of open-ended, indefinite state of uncertainty. Many camp inmates from Nauru or Manus have come to Australia thanks to the so-called Medevac Act, which the opposition pushed through in a hair’s breadth vote. “It allows those who need medical care to come to Australia,” Isaacs explains. That applies to almost all camp residents. But as punishment, the Australian government has interned a large number of them in hotels.
$10,000 per inmate
About 80 of these medicated refugees have been stuck in hotel rooms for one or even two years, several at a time. On Nauru, the island on the equator, another 110 inmates have been awaiting their fate for years. Per camp inmate and day, this costs the taxpayer 10,000 Australian dollars. At least a few thousand people demonstrated in Australia before Easter for an end to offshore internment. Because keeping people on islands in the middle of nowhere to keep refugees away – this so-called “Pacific solution” is as grotesque as it is cruel, but it is not a solution.