We travel to remote Manus Island in Papua New Guinea to investigate Australia’s refugee detention programme.
In 2013, Australia’s government announced a tough new policy towards refugees travelling by boat to its shores. The campaign that went with it was called, “No way. You will not make Australia home”.
Its goal was to discourage asylum seekers from entering the country “illegally” – as the government saw it.
The whole camp was set up like that ... set up to break their spirit, to dehumanise people, to grind them into the ground and I assume to encourage them to go back ... The whole camp was set up to break people's spirits, to cause trauma. And that's probably one of the most distressing things that I first realised and that is that I'm an Australian, I'm from a liberal democratic country where our rights are enshrined and personal freedoms and all those sorts of things, they're covered by law, they're protected by law. We consider that those things are really important, in fact, we consider them paramount and yet, the people in Nauru - the refugees and the asylum seekers - they were completely deprived of those things.
Most were coming from countries such as Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
Many refugees – having fled their homes – considered themselves stateless.
Their journeys were arduous and complex. Those from Iran, for instance, would travel first to Malaysia, where they could enter without a visa. Then they’d make their way to southernmost Indonesia, and from there, they took boats towards Australia’s closest islands.
The trips typically involved people smugglers and dangerous – sometimes deadly – journeys on boats that were often overloaded and unseaworthy.
Of the boats intercepted at sea by the Australian Border Force, many were forcibly turned back to where they’d come from. But passengers on some – and all those who did make it into Australian waters – were taken into custody, then deported, flown to neighbouring countries.
There, in Nauru and on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, they are still held in what Australia’s government calls “regional processing centres”. Critics call them prisons.
Nauru is a tiny 29sq kilometre island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
That small independent country – a member of the United Nations – has played a central role in the history of Australia’s refugee policies.
Nauru’s “detention centre” first opened in 2001, under a policy brought in by Australia’s conservative Liberal Party – the so-called “Pacific Solution”.
But this all changed when Kevin Rudd, from the centre-left Labour party, came to power in 2007. Rudd closed Nauru’s centre and most of the refugees were relocated to Australia.
But then as the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat started going back up, the Labour Party’s government was forced to reconsider. The centre reopened in 2012.
Today, the island’s detention centre is home to almost 500 people, including about 50 children.
Many of them have been there for more than three years.
But what’s going on inside? Both the Nauruan and Papua New Guinean detention centres are run under a veil of secrecy, off-limits to the media and to NGOs like Amnesty International.
People working there are not allowed to talk about what they have seen. Why?
Talk to Al Jazeera sits down with former employees who have decided to break their silence to tell us about the situation inside Australia’s offshore detention centres.
Are they, as the government says, having the desired effect by discouraging people from making dangerous journeys? But are they also, as the people we spoke to say, dehumanising and dangerous?
We spoke to Evan Davis, a teacher who used to work with children living in the Australian-run camp in Nauru. Despite secrecy provisions limiting the ability of staff to talk, he decided to share his experience.
“It struck me straight away that the place was more like a military camp, a prison, more than anything else, that was efficiently run,” he says. The children were referred to by personnel as numbers, not names, and Davis said the teachers endeavoured to make a point of learning the children’s names.
Judith Reem used to teach secondary school children on Nauru. She, herself, comes from a family of Bosnian refugees to Australia, which is one of the reasons she decided to speak out publicly. The tents where people lived, she says, were not designed for habitation, and cultural considerations, such as spaces for people to pray, were not taken into account.
Judith Reem feels particularly bad about having prepared the children for a life in Australia which was never going to happen.
“I feel, that in retrospect, I was a part of the lie, because I was teaching them conversational English for life in Australia and that just hasn’t happened,” she says. The conditions were worse than in a prison, Reem says.
“Some of the children in the camp can’t remember life before the camp because they were so little when they arrived,” she says.
“The cloak of secrecy around it [the camps] is what allows us this plausible deniability, which is hopefully a luxury I can take away.”
Jennifer Rose, a former elementary school teacher in Nauru, believes Australia needs to take a different approach when it comes to dealing with asylum seekers.
“How could you not be affected by seeing children retraumatised by a system that Australia has set up?” Rose asks.
Editor’s note: Talk to Al Jazeera has reached out to the governments of Australia and Nauru, requesting interviews in order to guarantee their right to reply. Nauru’s government has not answered our request. Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection agreed to an interview. Next week, Australia’s Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, will speak to Al Jazeera.
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