Has the ‘Pacific Solution’ solved anything in Australia?

Over the past decade Australian politicians have used asylum seekers for political gains.

There's no doubt among many observers that the Pacific Solution is an experiment in human diversion, under the guise of deterrence, of the most inhumane kind, writes Broom [EPA]

The death of a young Iranian asylum seeker killed in February inside an immigration detention centre on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island is currently under investigation locally and in Australia.

Reza Barati, 23, had been held on Manus Island since August 2013 as a direct result of the Australian government’s “Pacific Solution” policy, first implemented in 2001.

But what was the Pacific Solution, and what does it look like today?

Pacific Solution

”We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

So said Australian Prime Minister John Howard while trumpeting his government’s national security credentials following the 2001 announcement of the Pacific Solution, a radical immigration policy that was Howard’s answer to the question of what to do with the “boat people”, also labelled “queue-jumpers”, headed for Australia’s shores.

Australian PM defends asylum-seeker policy

It has resulted in the detention, on Pacific island centres, of thousands of asylum seekers who made the voyage to Australia by boat, and has borne a terrible human cost, most recently with Barati’s death in custody.

Boats carrying mostly South-East Asian asylum seekers first began arriving in Australia in 1976. The mandatory detention of anyone arriving in Australia without a valid visa was introduced in 1992 by Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Howard’s policy evolved following the August 2001 “Tampa affair”.

Asylum seekers aboard a sinking Indonesian fishing boat were rescued at the request of Australian Search and Rescue by the Norwegian freight ship the Tampa. The captain ignored the government’s ensuing refusal to give the Tampa clearance into Australian waters and took the 438 mainly Hazara Afghan asylum seekers to Christmas Island, Australia’s northern-most territory 1,540km off Australia’s west coast.

Offshore deals

Within weeks, Howard, leader of the conservative Liberal-National Coalition, struck a deal with the Nauru government to establish a detention centre for asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia. He also had Christmas Island and other islands excised from Australia’s migration zone, meaning anyone arriving there without an Australian visa could not make an application for one.

The solution was justified on the grounds that the boat arrivals needed to be screened for security reasons. Since 1999, the majority of asylum seekers have been from the Middle East. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, this was easily sold to an unsettled public, who returned the coalition to power with a 17-seat majority at the November 2001 federal elections. Howard’s government was facing almost-certain defeat prior to the Tampa affair.

However, Australia signed the agreement with Nauru to process asylum seekers one day before the planes hit the twin towers in New York. An agreement with Papua New Guinea to detain asylum seekers on Manus Island was signed in October 2001.

Border security was billed by the coalition as one of the two most important issues facing Australia. In a campaign speech in Sydney in which he stirred fears of public safety on several fronts, Howard said that September 11 was “an attack on Australia as much as it was an attack on the United States” because “it assaulted the very values that we hold dear”.

Cue a policy that has caused untold mental and physical anguish for people who ultimately were nearly always found to be “genuine” refugees.

It was the leftist Labor government that closed the Pacific detention centres in 2008 under the leadership of Kevin Rudd and the same government that re-opened them under Julia Gillard’s leadership in 2012.

Boats were sinking, asylum seekers were dying – sometimes very publicly, as in the case of a boat smashed to pieces on Christmas Island – and the government fell back on offshore processing in the face of opposition attacks and public opinion.

In May 2013, Gillard had the whole of the Australian mainland excised from the migration zone, while Rudd began an arrangement – yet to be finalised – to settle refugees in Papua New Guineau, excluding them from Australia.

But it is not asylum seeker arrivals in Australia that are of interest in the game of politics, it is boat arrivals.

Refugees as political pawns

While Tony Abbott, as opposition leader, decried that the Gillard government was doing nothing to protect the lives of people attempting the boat crossing, WikiLeaks cables revealed that a senior Liberal Party strategist told a US embassy official the boats were “fantastic” for the party, saying: ”The more boats that come, the better.”

101 East – Down and Under

Former Secretary of the Department of Immigration John Menadue says asylum seekers continued to arrive in Australia by plane after the Pacific Solution was implemented – in fact, he states 76 percent of asylum seeker arrivals in the past decade came by air.

There’s no doubt among many observers that the Pacific Solution is an experiment in human diversion, under the guise of deterrence, of the most inhumane kind.

During the 2013 federal election the Abbott team campaigned using the mantra they would “stop the boats”. On March 14, they boasted this had been achieved as no asylum seekers made it to Australia’s shores in 85 days.

The conditions asylum seekers are forced to live in have been widely criticised by the United Nations and human rights groups. This week the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Liam Fox was one of the first journalists allowed access to the Manus Island detention centre since it re-opened. Of his visit he said: “I’ve seen many shocking things as a journalist. The inside of the Manus detention centre is among the most confronting.”

Detainees on Manus Island, some of whom have been there since the centre re-opened, are effectively in prison without charge. They are in limbo as they wait for someone to begin processing their asylum claims.

In a 2012 opinion piece, researcher and author of The Pacific Solution, Susan Metcalfe, made many salient points about the impact of the Pacific Solution:

“It is well known that the Pacific Solution caused enormous suffering to vulnerable human beings, some of whom are still recovering. But the policy also entrenched the notion that causing harm is acceptable practise when political problems need solving.

To do nothing in the face of death and great trauma on the ocean is clearly not an option, but the Pacific Solution was never about saving lives. […]

[M]ental health problems are inevitable if we don’t resettle people within a reasonable time. It is a phenomenon I witnessed during the six months I spent in Nauru over 10 visits between 2005 and 2008… For some, the entrapment on a tiny island was unbearable, and only mammoth long-distance efforts from many Australians ensured that no one detained in Nauru took their own life.

The greatest deception perpetrated by the Australian government is that the country is being flooded with boat arrivals. The reality is that sea-based asylum seekers arrive in a trickle, not a flood – a little more than 60,000 people have arrived by boat in the past 40 years. This is the same number as visa overstayers – mostly from the US, Britain and Ireland – who were estimated to be in Australia in 2011. But, for more than a decade, in Australian politics, asylum seekers have made a very convenient political tool with which to scare up votes. 

Fiona Broom is a freelance journalist. She previously reported on legal, political and multicultural issues for Australian newspapers.