Last week the Australian government announced it will end “offshore processing” in Papua New Guinea within three months. This shock announcement is deeply destabilising for refugees who have been in limbo for more than eight years on Manus Island and now in Port Moresby. For many of us who have been following Australia’s cruel and punitive refugee policies over the past two decades, this was not unexpected in the lead-up to an election year.
Recently I delivered a talk at Canterbury University of New Zealand alongside Abbas Nazari. Abbas was one the children rescued by the Tampa in 2001. After a period of uncertainty and limbo Abbas and his family were finally transferred to New Zealand. It was a surreal moment when the two of us, having been subjected to Australia’s cruel and inhumane policies and actions, two decades apart, were united, standing in front of young political science students, analysing Australia’s policies towards refugees. We were like two pieces of a puzzle, carrying the same story, a story which has been repeated again and again over the past two decades.
Abbas shaped his speech around former Australian prime minister John Howard’s infamous statement “we will decide who comes to this country”, delivered just a few months before the 2001 election. Howard’s statement and its multifaceted implications continue to reverberate. I shaped my speech around the lead-up to the 2013 federal election when, on 19 July, two months prior to the federal election, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd announced that all people seeking asylum and arriving in Australia by sea would be transferred to Nauru or PNG. If found to be refugees, they would not be permitted to come to Australia.
During the 2016 federal election both major political parties competed in demonstrating to the public who would take a tougher stance against refugees – highlighting their strong “border protection” policies yet again. At a time when journalists were rarely able to access Manus Island, some media outlets appeared producing inaccurate stories about the refugees. These stories, which grossly mischaracterised the harsh experience we had been and were subjected to, created a false narrative in the minds of Australian people, representing refugees as enjoying their lives on Manus Island’s beaches and exploiting Australian taxpayers’ money.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. The refugees were detained in a prison camp for many years and suffered extremely harsh conditions. Reza Barati had been killed and Hamid Khazaei had died of infection due to blatant systematic neglect. Many international humanitarian organisations had reported the mistreatment on Manus Island and in Nauru, and Australia had been strongly condemned.
This pattern, or model, which involves what I call “a competition on cruelty” between the major parties, where refugees are used as political scapegoats to garner public support prior to an election, continued to grow.
In 2019, two months prior to the federal election, prime minister Scott Morrison visited Christmas Island with a cohort of reporters. The Daily Telegraph featured Morrison speaking of the Howard-built immigration detention prison as a “hardened facility” and the only part of Australia that refugees – who had been transferred from PNG and Nauru through the medevac legislation – would see. The Morrison government reopened the Christmas Island prison camp that year at a cost of $185m to taxpayers.
A week later a terrorist attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, was carried out by an Australian national. Only when the Australian public started to question politicians’ propaganda against migrants and refugees did both parties refocus their election campaigns on economic issues, ceasing to highlight refugee deterrence rhetoric.
We refugees have experienced at least four prime ministers since 2013. Now we are getting closer to the next federal election, and we see once again that the Australian government is using the lives of refugees for political gain.
The closure of Manus leaves the 124 asylum seekers still there with a stark choice - move to detention in Nauru or accept citizenship pathways from PNG. It is easy to imagine that Morrison will appear in media during upcoming debates prior to the election, stating “We are not responsible.” The recent announcement obscures the reality, which is that the cruel and illegal policy still exists and that the government is attempting to hide its failure to secure a safe and durable solution for refugees.
Reflecting on the past two decades, the pattern is clear: a humanitarian issue is repeatedly politicised in the lead-up to Australian federal elections and the “competition on cruelty” is heightened. This model has been used to manipulate the public since the Tampa affair, and the refugees and their family members left behind are the real victims of this populist and sadistic policy.
In 2021, the refugees who are still exiled to PNG are again abandoned and remain without any future. They are the only side of this story that is continually damaged – it is their lives that have been destroyed and it is their dreams that have been extinguished. This policy of exile has been exposed as an abject failure in a myriad of ways and it is the Australian public’s choice as to whether they want to be manipulated again or not.
• Behrouz Boochani is adjunct senior fellow at University of Canterbury in New Zealand and the author of No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison