The year 2002 started with traumatised asylum seekers sewing their lips together in protest at their incarceration, and ended with the federal government urgently planning a detention centre on Christmas Island.
John Howard and his cabinet were facing growing criticism over long-term detention as they increasingly enforced boat turnbacks and offshore detention in an effort to stop asylum seekers reaching the mainland.
Cabinet records from 2002, released on Sunday by the National Archives, show there were growing concerns over detainees becoming increasingly “non compliant” and “unsettled” as they fought for information and spent months – sometimes years – incarcerated.
The records reveal the cabinet considered resettling those found to be refugees in Australia, but without announcing that it had done so.
Last year’s archival release, the 2001 cabinet papers, detailed the fallout from the Tampa affair, Siev X and the “children overboard” story. Together these became the defining issues at that year’s election, which was won resoundingly by the Coalition.
By April 2002 there were more than 1,600 people, mostly from Afghanistan and Iraq, in offshore detention on Nauru, Manus Island, Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Island.
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The immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, and foreign affairs minister, Alexander Downer, made a submission to cabinet calling for more funding and detailing a strategy for offshore processing.
They noted Christmas Island had “significant issues” with infrastructure, health, provisioning and security. Cocos (Keeling) Island was over capacity, and the numbers on Manus Island were projected to increase, along with the cost.
That cost had been based on “a low level of security for a compliant population”, their submission noted.
“However, there may be a need to revise costs if the asylum seekers become less compliant (due to delays in decisions or when unfavourable decisions are announced)”.
It noted human rights concerns about long-term detention, and suggested ways to deal with detainees.
These included encouraging asylum seekers who were either still waiting for an assessment of their refugee status, or who had received a negative assessment, to return to their country of origin.
They could apply for a payment of up to $2,000 per person (up to $10,000 per family), along with airfares, help with travel documents and some support on arrival.
Rejected cases who did not take up the “voluntary” return were to “be held in Nauru or PNG for as long as possible”.
“Rejected cases [would] only be brought to mainland Australia as a last resort and not be released into the Australian community,” the submission said.
The government wanted to resettle those who were assessed to be refugees in other countries, including New Zealand and Sweden, but the submission proposed they could be quietly brought to Australia if that approach failed.
“Once the response from resettlement countries is clear and further delay in bringing refugees to Australia is not possible, it is proposed that Australia resettles any residual refugees (this decision not to be announced).”
The submission called for “voluntary” returns to be encouraged, with reintegration packages (which could be withheld by the immigration minister if the person engaged in “disruptive behaviour while in detention”) and disincentives to settling in Australia, such as the introduction of temporary protection visas.
“Persons granted TPVs were required to reapply after three years, [and] test whether conditions had changed in their homeland,” the National Archives cabinet historian, Dr David Lee, writes.
“Unlike holders of permanent visas, recipients of TPVs had no family reunion rights and no right to re-enter if they departed Australia.”
Cabinet was told that since 2000 the “unauthorised boat arrivals population has become increasingly non-compliant” and there had been escapes.
The behaviour of the asylum seekers as they awaited their fate – sometimes for years – had become hard to predict, and the submission called for more security to manage those at risk of self-harm, in need of medical attention, and those with behaviour management issues.
There was a “high risk of vandalism, sabotage, and arson”.
Christmas Island at that point had only temporary facilities, and by March the cabinet was told of the “urgent and grave” need for a purpose-built immigration reception and processing centre on the island. It agreed that the process would begin immediately and be fast-tracked with a “range of exemptions”.
Environmental protections should be overridden in the name of national security to build a facility to house 400 people within six months and 1,200 in the following four months.
It finally opened after more than five years, was then closed, but reopened in 2019 by Scott Morrison’s government as a “deterrent” to people smugglers.
Most recently, the Murugappan family – Tamils Priya, her husband, Nades, and their Australian-born daughters Kopika and Tharnicaa – from Biloela, were held there for two years.
Amid 2002’s debates about offshore detention centres, and the fallout from the Tampa affair and Siev X – an Indonesian fishing vessel that sank en route to Christmas Island in 2001, with 353 lives lost – a parliamentary committee report was tabled on the “children overboard” incident.
Before the 2001 election, the defence minister, Peter Reith, had claimed adults on an asylum seeker boat had deliberately thrown their children overboard in a ploy to be brought to Australia.
The Senate select committee on “A certain maritime incident” found that was a politically motivated lie.
The claim had been repeated by Howard, though the report did not directly implicate him.
The 2002 documents show cabinet had agreed that making submissions to the inquiry would be “inappropriate and unnecessary”, and to oppose any proposal for detainees to be brought to Australia to appear, or for the committee to visit offshore processing.
On its release the committee chair, the Labor MP Peter Cook said cabinet had “decided to fence off ministerial and prime ministerial conduct from the reach of the inquiry by refusing access to ministerial and prime ministerial staff and to public servants serving in ministerial offices at the time”.
Former senator and cabinet minister, Amanda Vanstone, said it was “no big deal” at the time, and that there was no broader directive to stymie the inquiry.
“We’re not going to send people along … it’s a standard procedure that ministers don’t speak before committees,” she said.