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Caveat Emptor: European governments should resist the Howard Government’s efforts to sell the ‘Pacific Solution’

Susan Metcalfe

If your child face this condition what will you act and realise? And how much does it disturb you in your every single step?

For many Australians, the Howard Government’s Pacific Solution is a source of great shame, embarrassment and despair. Clearly, this is not the case for the instigators of the policy who have devoted much time to proudly talking up their asylum seeker detention arrangements around the world.

While some European Union states currently debate plans to establish similar offshore processing camps in their own regions, others have expressed concern at the way the Australian Government has pushed (some would say ‘marketed’) its Pacific Solution policy to the rest of the world. In recent conversations, Australian NGO representatives were told of the discomfort felt by some European countries when faced with the Australian Government’s promotional presentations, including being shown videos and brochures ‘advertising’ Australia’s hard line policies.

Unfortunately, this global campaigning seems to have succeeded as a motivating force for some recent harsh policy proposals on the other side of the world. But the European countries supporting the introduction of offshore processing might well benefit from a closer look at the human consequences of the Pacific Solution policy three years from its inception.

As I write, eighty-one people, including sixteen children, remain indefinitely detained after three years on the tiny, impoverished island of Nauru. For many, the ongoing despair has manifested in serious physical and psychological health problems. Depression, anxiety, relentless physical and emotional pain and other serious mental illnesses are commonplace. Many spend their days and nights crying, families are falling apart, children are losing their youth coping with the despair of their parents as well as their own. Many cannot sleep because of recurring nightmares.

I was dreaming that someone was slaughtering me, on that time suddenly I screamed and jumped from bed, stood side of the bed, after so long time I became conscious then sat on my bed, my eyes was wiping blood instead of tears …. I was really terrified I thought I was in Afghanistan, if I go out some must kill me … I kept the light off, and sat in my room in the dark, since last night at three o’clock am I entered in my room for sleeping, I wasn’t able to go out, for breakfast lunch dinner even drink water, because of scaring.

One young Afghani man was recently brought to Australia for specialist medical treatment. He has been unwell for the past three years on Nauru and is only able to eat small amounts of rice to stay alive — he is literally wasting away. I have been told by people now visiting him in detention that this lovely and sensitive young man is painfully thin and they doubt that his medical condition will improve until he is released. His friends on Nauru tell me that he has never coped well with detention and has always been sick; they are pleading for him not to be sent back.

Asylum seekers on Nauru say they can never relax or feel safe with the constant pressure of the Department of Immigration (DIMIA) standing over them, pressuring them to return to unsafe conditions. They never know what will happen next. In September, DIMIA officials arrived on Nauru to ‘counsel’ people on their options. According to reports from Nauru, this included warnings that if people did not return voluntarily then they would be sent back by force. Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone denies that this ever happened, however, immediate reaction from the people on Nauru suggests otherwise.

I am so sick with a big shock at this moment and cannot control my hands to type this message … Since I heard the news my willing has been stopped, now my feet are feeling numb even my whole body feeling numb, I am really crazy now. I am trembling, and have an intensive pain throughout my body because some of us have told to be ready for returning back to a persecutions place in which we all faced tortured.

The impoverished experience of the Nauruan people only compounds an already difficult situation. The local people do not have enough food and many must send their children to school hungry. Australian police officers have recently been brought in to oversee local Nauruan police operations because of a rise in break-ins and theft. It is no wonder that parcels sent to the detention camp from Australia regularly ‘go missing’ and that some Nauruans feel resentment towards the asylum seekers who are, at least, adequately fed. The Nauruan people need Australia’s assistance but this aid should not be provisional on having to detain traumatised people fleeing persecution and war.

The current arrangement with Nauru has led to what Justice Michael Kirby has described as an ‘embarrassing’ foreign relations scenario which sees the Australian Government financing a Nauruan challenge on Australian law. The aim of the challenge is to stop the High Court from hearing an appeal on the legality of detaining people on Nauru. Nauru’s constitution only allows for the detention of a person in exceptional circumstances, usually when a person has committed a crime. The Australian Government is instrumentally deterring another country from operating under its own constitution and even using Australia’s money to support this attack on Australian laws. For a government that always purports to be acting in the national interest, the ethics of this action could take some explaining.

As a wealthy country, the Australian Government has set an unhealthy precedent in the world for palming off asylum seekers to desperate, struggling states. In 2003 Britain became the first European country to propose off-shore processing in countries like Ukraine or Albania. This was initially met with disdain by most other European countries, but today Germany and Italy are also pushing hard for an off-shore system to be set up in North African countries like Libya and Tunisia. Other European countries, including Spain and France, are opposed to these proposals, predominantly on the grounds of human rights concerns.

Libya has a notoriously bad human rights record. In October, Amnesty International warned:

Libyan authorities have routinely violated domestic safeguards and international standards regarding arrest, detention and trial, thus disrupting the lives of hundreds of real and suspected political opponents as well as those of migrants and possible asylum-seekers.

In July this year, 110 asylum seekers were forcibly returned from Libya to Eritrea. According to Amnesty International, these people are now believed to be ‘detained incommunicado in a secret prison in Dahlak Kebir island on the Red Sea, where conditions are harsh’. Human rights groups are understandably outraged at any proposal for Libya to run an asylum seeker processing camp, particularly when they are not signatories to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention.

The UNHCR High Commissioner Rudd Lubbers has recently stated, ‘a policy built on exclusion is not only morally reprehensible, it is also impractical: it will simply push all forms of migration, including refugees, further underground’. Lubbers also notes that the number of people seeking asylum in industrialised states last year was at its lowest level since 1997. In spite of this, countries have conversely stepped up their efforts to deny protection to refugees in need of the world’s assistance. In Lubbers’ view, the motivation for this incongruous reaction from states is ‘fear, confusion and the politicization of humanitarian concerns’.

The eighty-one people still held under the Australian Government’s authority on Nauru simply cannot endure much more — after three years they have exhausted their inner resources. These people have been used by the Australian Government to show the world that Australia can control its borders. But that point has now been well and truly made. These people should be given the opportunity to live their lives in freedom and peace. There is nothing to be gained by Australia keeping them any longer in this condition, at great financial cost, on this near-bankrupt island in the Pacific.

I have the same days, and I see the same faces every day, the faces of guards are faceless, I have witnessed weeping tears, which is unbearable for me and also make me cry, because I could understand them, I have witnessed the families left behind in Nauru and also I can see that this is the worst moment of their life … We are people in search of peace and liberty, and we are dispossessed people, the freedom which is possessed by Australia we beg for that. And we beg for your help please.

Susan Metcalfe is currently doing a PhD at the University of New England on Australia’s relationship with asylum seekers, including a case study of Nauru.