Two former detainees in Australia’s notorious offshore immigration detention centres have issued a “dire warning” to UK parliamentarians ahead of a vote to replicate these centres this week.
They are urging MPs not to back the nationality and borders bill which will be debated in parliament on Tuesday and Wednesday. If passed into law in its current form it will diminish refugee protection. Large-scale reception centres are planned and the legislation includes a provision for housing asylum seekers offshore while their claims are considered.
The two former detainees who have signed the letter are Thanush Selvarasa, a Tamil refugee held in the Manus Island detention centre for seven years before being transferred to Australia and now a campaigner for asylum seekers’ rights, and Elahe Zivardar, an Iranian artist and refugee held in the Nauru detention centre for six years before being transferred to the US in 2019.
They are joined by two other signatories who worked in the detention camps and were appalled by what they witnessed there. Dr Nick Martin is a GP and former surgeon lieutenant commander in the British navy, who spent nine months as senior medical officer at the Nauru detention centre in 2016 before speaking out against the conditions there. Carly Hawkins is an education specialist who previously worked as a teacher for children incarcerated at the Nauru detention centre.
The letter, coordinated by the charity Detention Action, states: “As people who were detained indefinitely in Australia’s offshore camps on Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, and as professionals who were employed there, we are deeply concerned to learn that the UK government seeks to grant itself the same power to transfer people seeking asylum to offshore detention centres.
It adds: “We write to you with a dire warning against adopting offshore detention. We cannot imagine why any country would want to replicate such a cruel, costly and ultimately futile system.” They say it will create an “indelible stain on the reputation of the United Kingdom”.
Various organisations including Amnesty International (UK and Australia), Lancet Migration, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Refugee Council, Human Rights Watch and Doctors of the World are backing the letter.
The United Nations high commissioner for refugees has condemned the plans and warned that if the bill becomes law it will undermine the 1951 refugee convention and the current system of international protection not just in the UK but globally.
Selvarasa said: “I am one of many people who came to Australia seeking asylum and safety. Instead, I spent seven years suffering under the Australian government’s cruel policy of offshore detention, on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
“Year after year, I watched my friends die. They lost their lives and their futures waiting for freedom. The mental effects of facing such uncertainty, a life in indefinite detention, was what forced some to take their own lives. We screamed but our screams were not heard.”
Zivardar said: “I left Iran to seek safety, instead I became a prisoner. These island prisons were designed to be a place of torture, humiliation, cruelty and racism. They were intended to drive innocent people, including hundreds of children and women, to either go back to the countries from which they came, or die on the island.”
Martin said: “I cannot stress enough the ruinous costs of offshore detention, not only in money spent but international reputation and most importantly to the physical and mental health of people who were seeking a decent life.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “People should claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive in, and as part of our response we are removing incentives to come to the UK and working with international partners to put an end to these dangerous journeys.
“We will always comply with our international obligations and the European convention on human rights.”