Four years since the then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, announced that “any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia”, offshore detention has cost Australian taxpayers almost $5bn and the future of those held on Nauru and Manus Island remains critically uncertain.
On 19 July 2013, Rudd announced all boat-borne asylum seekers would be subject to indefinite detention offshore and would never be eligible to settle in Australia.
Despite consistent revelations of physical violence – including murder – sexual abuse of women and children, allegations of torture by guards, medical neglect leading to death and catastrophic rates of mental health damage, self-harm and suicide attempts, both of Australia’s offshore processing centres remain operational.
Roughly 2,000 people remain on Australia’s offshore processing islands of Nauru and Manus, and figures released under Senate estimates questioning show that the two camps have cost $4.895bn to build and run.
All of the costs are borne by Australia, which maintains effective control over both centres.
The Manus centre – ruled illegal by Papua New Guinea’s supreme court 15 months ago – will close on 31 October under pressure from the PNG government and from the private contractors running the centre, who have refused to continue working there.
The Nauru camp will continue to run but that country’s government has consistently refused to offer permanent resettlement to refugees, instead offering 20-year visas with restrictions on travel.
The proposed resolution for Australia’s offshore refugee population, the US deal to resettle refugees from Australia’s Nauru and Manus operations in America, has foundered, with the US hitting its 50,000 cap for refugee resettlement this year and officials abruptly leaving their on-island interviews on Nauru two weeks early.
Both the US and Australian governments have said the deal remains on track but details of the agreement are unknown.
No one held under Australia’s offshore regime has been resettled under the US program and the deal does not commit the US to taking a single refugee if it deems they have not passed “extreme vetting”, a threshold that has never been defined.
Australian officials have conceded that, even if the US resettlement program does go ahead, it will not clear the detention centres, leaving “a balance” on the two islands.
The Manus detention centre is being progressively shut down with more than 800 men still housed there. Buildings have been closed off, power shut off, activities stopped and people forcibly moved from their dormitories. There are reports there is no more running water in parts of the camp and those within are reliant on bottled water.
Despite the camp closing around them, many of those in the detention centre are refusing to leave, saying they will not be safe in the community.
The PNG prime minister, Peter O’Neill, said the American deal remained a viable solution to close the camp but said his government was “looking at all options” for the men in the camp.
The Human Rights Law Centre’s Daniel Webb said offshore detention had run “four years too many”.
In a series of interviews with Webb and with Iranian journalist and Manus detainee Behrouz Boochani, men in detention have said they faced uncertain futures.
I feel like everything the Australian government is doing is designed to force us to go home or go into PNG. They are squeezing us out of the camp but not to the airport where they will take us to safety. They are squeezing us into the PNG community where we are not safe.
– Amir, 23, Iran
The situation here is getting worse and worse. They have shut down classrooms. Closed the gym. They tell us every day that we can’t stay here. They say go back to your country or go to the transit centre. But we aren’t safe out there in the community. That is the worst thing – they are trying to push us somewhere where we will not be safe.
– Madu, 23, stateless Rohingya
We’ve had so many hard times. We’ve been attacked, we’ve been punched and we’ve been fired at with shotguns. My friend, Reza, was killed. He was a gentle man. But they didn’t care who we were.
– Farhard, 36, stateless Kurd
Webb said the US deal initially gave those on those islands some hope that “finally our government was conceding it couldn’t just abandon them there forever”.
“But it’s now eight months since the deal was announced and not a single refugee has been resettled,” he said. “Most of the men on Manus haven’t even had an initial interview.
“The bottom line is that no one is likely to go to the US anytime soon and many now seem unlikely to ever go at all. Two-thousand lives remain on a painful pause with no end in sight. One hundred and sixty-nine childhoods are being spent surrounded by suffering and despair.
“After four years, enough is well and truly enough.”
The foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, said on the weekend the US deal was “progressing as we expected”, saying there had not been any delay.
“The United States is upholding the agreement,” she said.
Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition said the US deal had stalled and those held on Australia’s offshore islands had been “living on false hopes for eight months already”.
“Now those hopes have been dashed again,” he said. “It is time for the Turnbull government to end the pretence of the US deal and act immediately to bring them all the asylum seekers and refugees to Australia.”
Paul Ronald, the chief executive of Save the Children, the child welfare agency that formerly worked on Nauru, said that, even if the US deal remained a possibility, the current situations on Nauru and Manus were untenable.
“The Australian government is undeniably responsible for the health and welfare of those who it has transferred offshore,” he said. “Refugees on Nauru and Manus Island can no longer remain in limbo. Prime minister Turnbull should immediately bring them to safety in Australia while they await resettlement in the US or until another safe and sustainable alternative can be secured.”
Last month, the Australian government agreed to pay $70m in compensation to the Manus Island detainees, who sought damages in the Victorian supreme court for illegally detaining them in dangerous and harmful conditions.
In agreeing to the record payout, the government did not concede liability.
There is a hastened effort under way to get the payout money to the 1905 men enjoined to the class action before Manus is closed, because it may be difficult to find them after that time.
The Manus and Nauru processing centres were re-opened in 2012 under the Gillard government, but July 13 marks the date of the policy shift - under Rudd - prohibiting any asylum seeker who arrived by boat from ever resettling in Australia.
Vigils will be held across the country to mark four years since the alteration to Australian policy.