Manus and Nauru do not stop the boats

Manus and Nauru do not stop the boats, say asylum seekers in Indonesia

By Kieren Kresevic Salazar – SMH – 

Asylum seekers in Indonesia say they will no longer attempt to reach Australia by boat because the federal government turn-back policy has been so effective.

The representatives of asylum seekers say this would not change even if refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island were resettled.

The boat turn-back strategy – a crucial part of the Abbott government’s signature policy Operation Sovereign Borders and implemented by then immigration minister Scott Morrison – is repeatedly cited as the reason why Australia is no longer considered a viable destination.

Asylum seekers say the message that Australia ‘‘is closed’’ has also been successfully reinforced by an extensive advertising campaign. And no one is prepared to spend the thousands of dollars to buy passage on a dangerous boat when it will be turned back.

Domestically, the fate of refugees on Nauru and Manus Island continues to play into political and humanitarian concerns.

A 12-year-old had to be medically evacuated from Nauru to Brisbane last week after refusing to eat for 20 days. Another seriously ill child has reportedly been ordered off Nauru by an Australian court on Friday.

Turn-backs … That’s the reason, not keeping people in offshore detention.

Mozhgan Moarefizadeh, an Iranian refugee and advocate.

Former home affairs minister Peter Dutton argued in June that the ‘‘single act of compassion’’ of bringing 20 seriously ill asylum seekers to Australia from Manus Island and Nauru for medical treatment would be seen by people smugglers as an open invitation to re-start their trade.

But asylum seekers say the Nauru-Manus deterrent plays no part.

‘‘Making [Nauru and Manus] like a zoo that everyone is seeing around the world, [saying] ‘Don’t come to Australia or else this happens to you’ – this is not the thing that is impacting people not to come,’’ said Mozhgan Moarefizadeh, an Iranian refugee and advocate.

Moarefizadeh said the decisive factor was “[Boat] turn-backs … That’s the reason, not keeping people in offshore detention.”

Moarefizadeh, tried and failed three times to reach Christmas Island by boat in 2013, before the boat turn-backs began late that year.

“It was seeing what’s going on and hearing the news and we were like, ‘OK then, it’s risky, it’s dangerous, crossing the sea is not a joke in those kinds of boats’.

“’And people are saying that even if you make it there, you’ll be turned back, so what’s the point in going’?” said Moarefizadeh, who went on to co-found the Refugee and Asylum Seeker Information Centre to help others in her position access legal aid and community support in Indonesia.

“Australia is not accepting people. Their border is closed. That’s it, we don’t go,” she said.

Shawji Ramadhan, a Sudanese refugee and former microbiologist who has been in Indonesia since 2011, agrees that Manus Island and Nauru are simply not on the minds of refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia. “I think Australia is thinking, ‘If I take those people [in offshore detention] to Australia, maybe a lot of people [will be] coming again’,” Mr Ramadhan said.

“But, you know, nobody here is thinking about refugees in Manus, because everyone knows about the border being closed.

“Even my friends in Sudan know that. So many people here don’t know about Nauru and Manus at all”.

Operation Sovereign Borders

Offshore detention centres were reopened by the Gillard government in 2012, but arrivals by boat kept increasing, from 17,204 that year to 20,587 in 2013.

It was not until the advent of Operation Sovereign Borders in late 2013, which started turning boats around, that the number of arrivals dropped dramatically. Actions under that policy included allegedly paying people smugglers to steer their boats back to Indonesia.

Part of the deterrence was a series of highly publicised sinkings. Another was the reality for asylum seekers that they would pay a people smuggler the going rate at the time of $US5000 to $US6000, only to find themselves back where they began.

Some asylum seekers who have arrived more recently in Indonesia have no idea that Australia detains former “boat people” to dissuade them from making the same journey.

“So many people here don’t know about Nauru and Manus at all,” said Abbas Wafa, a refugee community leader and former humanitarian worker, who fled ethnic violence against Hazaras with his wife and now five-year-old daughter.

Since 2013, offshore detention has cost Australian taxpayers more than $5 billion. It costs more than $570,000 per year to detain one refugee on Manus Island or Nauru.

The government is profoundly culpable for engaging in policies which are deliberately damaging to children and their families.

Former Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs

According to the leaked Nauru Files, some have suffered sexual assault, physical and psychological abuse, mental illness, self-harm and suicide attempts, including among children.

Twelve refugees and asylum seekers have died as a result of suicide, self-immolation, medical neglect or unprovoked violence while in offshore detention. Recently, a number of cases have been reported of resignation syndrome among children, a type of severe depression characterised by progressive withdrawal from life.

Today, 117 children are still living on Nauru, around 40 of whom have been born on the island. The government resists all attempts by activists to bring them off the island, arguing that it would lead to boats again crossing from Indonesia and people drowning at sea.

But former Human Rights Commission president, Gillian Triggs, told Fairfax Media that, “holding children and their families … on Manus and Nauru, that is not what is stopping unauthorised maritime arrivals”.

“The government is profoundly culpable for engaging in policies which are deliberately damaging to children and their families for extensive and unprecedented periods of time,” she said.

Politicians in Canberra “are well aware of the consequences of what they’re doing but will say that they have their own political advantages either personally or to their party to continue these policies,” Professor Triggs said.

“They see their political futures being dependent upon their offshore processing policies.”

Neither the department nor the former minister’s office responded to a list of questions.

Peter Dutton was until Friday the face of Australia’s offshore detention policy, and new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was the progenitor of the boat turnbacks policy.

However, both the government and the opposition have rejected calls to resettle those detained on Manus Island and Nauru in Australia.

They argue people smugglers would leverage such a move to convince asylum seekers overseas that they too could make it by boat to Australia.

In turning down New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 of the refugees on Manus Island and Nauru, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said it would be used “by people smugglers as a marketing opportunity.”

The evidence from Indonesia suggests that people smugglers do not have such easy access to a market.

“If people smugglers promote this ideology of going to Australia by boat, and telling us that there is a way or there is a hope, people would not believe them,” said Nusrat Karimi, a Hazara refugee who arrived in Indonesia as an unaccompanied minor more than five years ago.

“They know that the border is closed.”

‘You Will Not Make Australia Home’

The “border closed” message has been reinforced to those displaced and waiting indefinitely in Indonesia by a five-year $70 million Australian government advertising campaign.

“You will be turned back”, the advertisements say.

“No Way. You will not make Australia home.”

Australian advertisements in Indonesia.
Australian advertisements in Indonesia.

Photo: Supplied

In the streets of refugee communities in Cisarua and Jakarta, people often wake up to posters plastered outside their homes and pamphlets slipped under their front doors.

“People are always talking about Australian policy. Information spreads,” Wafa says.

“When you play a video on YouTube an announcement will come – ‘You will not make Australia home’. We all know about this.”

“Once they started to intercept boats and take them directly back to Indonesia or Vietnam or Sri Lanka, that sent a very strong message that people would pay maybe a lot of money but not actually get anywhere, end up back in basically point zero,” said Antje Missbach, a senior lecturer at Monash University and the author of Troubled Transit: Asylum Seekers Stuck in Indonesia.

Trish Cameron, an Australian lawyer who has been providing pro bono legal information to asylum seekers in Indonesia for the past three years, says: “It’s only the Australian government that still focuses on boats anymore. It’s not a discussion that’s being had in refugee communities here.”

Surprisingly, many refugees have a positive opinion of Australia’s closed border.

“We have all lost brothers, cousins, friends at sea,” Wafa says. “We are praying that the border never be opened again.”

‘A green hell’

On the other side of boat turnbacks, refugees stuck in Indonesia have been informed by the UN Refugee Agency that they may face a wait of up to 25 years, or never resettle in a third country, as nations around the world limit their refugee intakes, particularly for those of Muslim backgrounds.

The agency has suggested they assimilate to life in Indonesia – even though they cannot legally settle there – and prepare themselves to wait there indefinitely.

Australia has ruled that it will not resettle any refugees who arrived to Indonesia after July 2014, and has cut its overall humanitarian intake from Indonesia, as well as its funding to the International Organisation for Migration, which operates detention centres and provides essential services to refugees.

Although Mr Wafa believes that boat turn backs saved lives, many refugees are left in a desperate position as the lack of work rights for refugees in Indonesia, and dwindling support from Australia, sees more asylum seeker families becoming homeless.

“If there was a proper humanitarian program, no one would be willing to go by boat,” Mr Wafa said.

Farahnaz Salehi fled from Afghanistan with her family in 2013 when she was 15.

Farahnaz Salehi, 20, who has been in Indonesia for five years.
Farahnaz Salehi, 20, who has been in Indonesia for five years.

Photo: Janbaz Salehi

Together with her parents and seven siblings, their family has survived in Cisarua, two hours by road from Jakarta, for more than five years without the right to work or to gain a formal education.

They have slowly been eating their way through their life savings, and hoping for eventual resettlement in a third country.

“We can’t go back, and we can’t move forward, so we are stuck here in Indonesia,” Ms Salehi said.

“Indonesia is like a green hell. We are unknown people. We are unknown humans.”

On Manus Island, Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish novelist, journalist and filmmaker, says his detention since 2013 has been “without any reason”.

“The [Australian] government is convincing people in Australia that they have this right to violate human rights on Manus and Nauru,” he says.

“What the government has done on Manus and Nauru is systematic torture … I always wonder, ‘Why’?”

  • Kieren Kresevic Salazar is a writer and refugee researcher, and a student at Harvard University.