Out of sight, out of mind?
That seems to be the policy of the Australian government towards a group of 377 asylum seekers they have sent to the Pacific Island of Nauru.
As part of a tough new policy designed to deter asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka taking to boats and heading to its shores, Australia has brought in a policy of ‘offshore processing’.
Rather than determine whether or not people are refugees on home soil – and therefore be obliged to give them residency in Australia if they are – Australia has started sending asylum seekers to other countries.
The first is Nauru – a dot in the Pacific Island that is heavily dependent on Australian aid, and therefore keen to help out.
I travelled there in September, just before the first asylum seekers were sent.
It’s a hot sticky place, hundreds of kilometres from any other land. The asylum centre there is better described as a camp: people sent to Nauru are living five to a tent.
If Australia’s policy is meant to deter people getting on boats, it does not seem to be working: people are arriving in as great a number as ever – 14,000 so far this year, with last month recording one of the highest numbers on record. Maybe they know that most of them won’t be sent off-shore, the facilities simply are not ready yet.
But some are being transferred to Nauru. And those unlucky ones are – quite frankly – being left to languish.
Determined to show that no asylum seeker will enjoy any ‘advantage’ by travelling by boat to Australian shores, Australia’s government deliberately wants the processing of their asylum claims to drag out.
Asylum seekers have been told they will be on Nauru six months before the asylum process even begins. Years might pass before any are declared refugees.
And then it will be up to Nauruan authorities to resettle them – handing them over to any one of 22 countries.
Left in limbo, with no prospect of making what they feel are genuine claims for asylum, the detainees have started to protest. For a week, many have been on hunger strike.
But exactly how many, and what effect it is having on them is unclear because the Australian government will not let any media organisations into their camp. They were quite happy to show it off when there was no one in it but now there are detainees, it is off-limits.
The government is scornful of refugee advocates who call their policy ‘inhumane’ but preventing the media from accessing the facility, and giving only the loosest information about the protest going on inside – “at least 200 meals are being taken” is all they’ll tell me – makes people think it must be just that.
Australia’s own human rights commissioner has criticised Canberra’s policy as a breach of international law.
She’s scornful of the government’s claim that their policy will save lives – the claim that deterring desperate people from getting on boats will prevent any from drowing.
A small minority of vessels heading to Australia sink.
But what if a hunger striker was to die? Could Australia’s government maintain the line that their policies are ‘saving lives’?
At that point, it would seem a very difficult case to make.