Adeal with the US to settle an unknown number of refugees from Australia’s offshore processing centres could mark the end of one of Australia’s most contentious political and moral issues over the past 15 years.
Since offshore processing was restarted in 2001, it has grown into an internationally condemned, secretive regime, subject to hundreds of court cases in Australia and overseas.
Inside the centres there have been violent deaths, horrific acts of self-harm and abuse, and mass protests.
The centres have emptied and swelled, peaking under the former Labor government.
The government’s line, hardened over the years by both Labor and the Coalition, had left it in an immovable position – not one asylum seeker who comes by boat can settle in Australia, lest its policy be seen as a failure.
Australia’s government claims its harsh policies have stopped the boats – despite some recent attempts – and thus the deaths at sea. It’s assumed any future arrivals would be dealt with as they are now – with enhanced screening processes and boat turnbacks.
The ‘Pacific Solution’
Offshore processing restarted in earnest in 2001 after the Tampa affair, when a Norwegian freighter rescued 433 asylum seekers from their sinking vessel, 140km from Christmas Island. Against international law, Australia refused the Tamp entry into its waters, sparking an international controversy.
Dubbed the “Pacific Solution” under then prime minister John Howard, the policy saw all asylum seekers who arrived by boat intercepted at sea and sent straight to offshore camps established on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
Christmas Island, closer to Indonesia, was excised from the Australian migration zone to host another centre. A subsequent Labor government would more than 10 years later excise the entire Australian mainland.
Following the “children overboard” incident in October 2001 – and the deaths of 353 men, women and children in the Siev X disaster – asylum seekers were a major political issue and Howard went to a federal election with his infamous declaration that “we will decide who comes to this country and the manner in which they come”.
Howard won the election and offshore processing continued. Concerns about indefinite detention and its impact on physical and mental health was widespread among advocates and rights groups.
‘Pacific Solution’ ends but the boats restart
The detention camps housed more than 1,500 people. Between 2001 and 2008, 705 people from the offshore centres were resettled in Australia and 401 in New Zealand. Some asylum seekers remained in detention for years, but the boat arrivals slowed, and in 2008 offshore processing was dismantled by the new Labor government, led by Kevin Rudd.
However arrivals began again and several high-profile tragedies, including an explosion on a boat near Ashmore Reef in 2009 and the crashing of Siev 221 on the coast of Christmas Island in 2010, contributed to a death toll at sea estimated at more than 1,000.
A deal under then prime minister Julia Gillard, signed in mid 2011 with Malaysia, was supposed to see 4,000 refugees taken from Malaysia’s camps in return for it taking 800 asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat, but this was struck down by the high court.
Later, the Coalition immigration minister Scott Morrison would successfully negotiate a $55.5m deal with Cambodia to host refugees, but it would be taken up by just six people, with many returning home shortly after arriving.
Following recommendations from an expert panel which focused largely on the need for a “no advantage” policy, offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island restarted in August 2012.
An “enhanced screening” process – criticised for its lack of transparency – was introduced to deal with the overwhelming backlog of asylum seekers, which grew to 20,000 by mid-2013.
Amnesty International and the UNHCR released reports condemning the conditions inside the two centres, and the indefinite nature of the detention. Amnesty labelled the Nauru centre “a human rights catastrophe”.
Read more : theguardian