While it is encouraging to see the inertia around durable resettlement solutions for refugees on Manus and Nauru broken, Sunday’s announcement that they will be resettled in the United States raises more questions for those involved than it answers, particularly in the current political climate, and in light of Trump’s plans to ban Muslim immigration. This kind of ambiguity, while not unfamiliar, is particularly tough for a cohort who have already lived through three years of uncertainty and have scarce resilience left to draw upon.
For those those who have negative refugee status decisions, these unanswered questions are especially serious given that Iran is not taking voluntary returns, the Rohingya people are stateless and so many simply cannot “go home” as the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, insists.
And this is before we begin ask questions about the veracity of refugee status decisions made on Manus and Nauru. We also know that other countries may be in the mix, countries that are not signatory to the refugee convention. It is also concerning that the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, says US vetting will be based on health and security checks, since the detention regime has had dire impacts on both the physical and mental health of detainees. Will they be punished further for having already been punished so severely?
A young asylum seeker confessed to me on Sunday that it would be the last straw to see the island emptied of those who had arrived with them and to be given a 20-year visa in a country with no opportunities. This person had been a minor three years ago and a star student with a quick and agile mind and they could think of no reason to carry on should that set of circumstances eventuate.
So it seems somewhat illogical that Turnbull would feel the need to defend his ministers from “vicious attacks” by activists who sought to defend human rights and promote transparency, when he and his predecessors felt no need to protect children from the harm caused by indefinite detention. There are children on Nauru whose only living memory is of residing in a tent, in a reclaimed phosphate mine, surrounded by no-climb fences and guards – and this disaster is a policy, not an accident of war.
There were some irrefutable facts that remained unaddressed in the announcement. Governments, both Labor and Liberal, have sent some of the world’s most vulnerable families to an undemocratic country, absent of robust rule of law or statutory child protection services. As a nation, we engaged an aid-dependent Pacific neighbour as a client state to run an island prison for people who had committed no crime. The consequences have been devastating and carefully documented in information reports, the Moss review, the Human Rights Commission’s Forgotten Children report, Amnesty’s Island of Despair and the Guardian’s Nauru files, among others. The real human cost to the victims of offshore processing would require a longitudinal study, for which I doubt there is much appetite.
One of the cruelest elements of detention is family separation. In the detention environment families keep each other alive. I will never understand why ministerial discretion was not employed to reunite separated families who were kept apart for years to receive medical attention in Australia; some for debilitating mental health conditions which were caused by prolonged detention, some for injuries inflicted by armed groups in conflict zones they fled. This was cruelty piled upon needless suffering.
This kind of family separation will be legislated if the lifetime ban on re-entering Australia is applied to all on Manus and Nauru. Those with families on Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) who cannot leave Australia without risking losing their visa will be unable to visit family abroad and likewise refugees who arrived by boat after 13 July 2012 would never, ever be allowed to visit their loved ones in Australia.
As former students send messages of relief, apprehension and hope, many of them have stopped to remember those who won’t make this next part of the journey – Omid Masoumali, Reza Barati, Hamid Kehazaei – as well as those who will never fully recover from the aftermath of years of torment. They also lament years of their lives and education that cannot be recaptured and it is a heartbreaking privilege to be privy to these reflections.
I hope that the people held on Manus and Nauru who have been the human collateral of Australia’s asylum seeker policy can begin to rebuild their lives again soon. I hope that no one is left behind. I hope that next year, their children will pack a school bag, with sandwiches and books to climb on to a bus with friends and arrive at a school where they feel safe. Where the teachers will understand their now quite complex needs but also see their extraordinary spirits and potential.
Judith Reen worked at Australia’s immigration processing centres in Nauru and Manus Island from October 2013 to July 2015.