Refugees leave Nauru (at last)


Shinkiari refugee camp in Pakistan David Mark

One hopes the headline is not a jinx, like headlines pre-empting the Federal Government’s $2 billion investment in social housing. The Government is having trouble getting the legislation through the house and we ought to be asking why.

We should also be asking what is happening with Australia’s human logjam of refugees awaiting decisions on their future. As you probably gathered, it is Refugee Week in Australia. We will be doing our bit on Sunday with a Welcome Walk in Warwick, itself declared a Refugee Welcome Zone a few years ago.

The Guardian published a story late last week that suggested the Federal Government would finally take the remaining 12 refugees held on Nauru Island and re-locate them to the Australian mainland.

Cue a song I wrote in late 2018 when there was a concerted campaign to remove minors and people needing medical assistance from Nauru. The title ‘Get the Kids off Nauru’ may have dated, but the mere fact there are still refugees in offshore detention shows that not much has changed. And this article does not even mention Manus Island.

Even if all refugees are removed from Nauru by June 30, as is widely suspected, the Australian Government will reportedly retain the ‘capacity’ to continue using the remote island for offshore detention.

The Guardian cited intel from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) and Refugee Action Coalition which has been monitoring the inflow of refugees to Brisbane; most of them moving to hotel detention. Most are expected to be given bridging visas and encouraged to work. That’s a subtle change to common practices since the Howard government saw the opportunity to create offshore processing in 2001, in the wake of the discredited ‘children overboard’ Tampa affair.

Over the ensuing years, the public has mostly been in the dark about what went on in Nauru. In 2014, the Nauruan Government was asking news organisations to pay $8,000 per journalist for a three-month visa. If the application was rejected, the payment was non-refundable.

The newly elected Rudd government stopped offshore processing in 2007, after reports filtered out via humanitarian groups about abuses, overcrowding, and a shortage of potable water. Not that Labor proved to be the panacea, re-introducing offshore processing  in 2012. The right and left of politics have long played ducks and drakes with the lives of people shunted from their homelands by war, famine, religious persecution and/or terrorism.

A week or two away from the 2022 election, the soon-to-be outgoing Coalition Government quickly moved to close a controversial hotel detention centre in downtown Melbourne,. Refugees were the least of former PM Scott Morrison’s problems, but it was an egregious move to deflect attention from other issues.

Offshore processing is one aspect of Australia’s policies about refugees and asylum seekers. Onshore, the prevailing wisdom has been to lock ‘them’ away. As of April 30, 2023, there were 1,128 people in closed detention and another 319 in community detention. Of the people in closed detention, 168 are there because they came to Australia by boat, seeking asylum. On the basis of what it costs to keep one person in jail, closed detention is costing taxpayers at least $45 million a year.*

Conservative governments have been apt to describe boat arrivals as “illegals” when in law the term is “irregular”. Such attempts are often doomed to failure as the boats are intercepted by Australian or Indonesia border forces and turned back. Some sink and people drown – we seldom hear about that. As a ‘champagne socialist’, it pains me to report that the seed of this treatment of refugees was sown by a Labor Government.

In 1992, Paul Keating’s government introduced mandatory detention for any non-citizen who arrived in Australia without an appropriate visa. Keating changed the law from a limit of 273 days to indefinite detention. This meant that non-citizens without a valid visa, suspected of visa violations, illegal entry or unauthorised arrival, could be held in indefinite detention until their case and status was heard and resolved.

The policy (it was meant to be temporary), is regarded as controversial and has been criticised by humanitarian organisations. However, subsequent governments of all creeds have upheld indefinite detention and the High Court decreed that it was constitutional.

The two largest onshore detention centres are Villawood in NSW (441 detainees) and Yongah Hill in WA (248).

The important number in these statistics compiled by the Refugee Council of Australia is the average time spent in closed detention (two years and five days), with another 259 people spending more than two years in community detention.

Australia is also responsible for 1,367 children in the community on bridging visas and 95 children held in community detention.

These numbers are miniscule in the global scheme of things, with 108 million people forcibly displaced as of December 31, 2022. Of these, 28 million were assessed to be refugees by the UNHCR and another 5.4 million judged to be asylum seekers.

As the war in Ukraine continues unabated, as Iran bubbles and boils and people in feudal African countries are hunted like rabbits, we here in Warwick are doing our bit to improve the lot of five people.

Our local refugee support group applied to be part of the Federal Government’s CRISP refugee sponsorship scheme. The latter encourages local community groups to sponsor a family to settle in rural Australia. Thanks to our generous community, we raised more than $10,000 and were gifted a houseful of furniture. So it was that a family of five from Pakistan arrived at Brisbane airport in mid-May. We are responsible for their welfare for the next 12 months. A month later, the family are settling into their new abode; adapting to Warwick’s cold nights after living in a Sri Lankan refugee camp. The daughters are enrolled in local schools and the parents have been getting out and about. It is a challenging but rewarding way to turn abstract concerns into real action.

Having said that, volunteers who get involved with refugee and asylum seeker support groups often suffer from ‘empathy fatigue’. Then there is the perpetual quest for donations to keep much needed support going.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre was last year at risk of having to close because of a shortage of funds. The Melbourne-based charity said donations were down 45% since re-opening in mid-2022 after the pandemic. In any given year, more than 7,000 people seeking asylum approach the ASRC for essential services including food, housing, medical care, and legal help. Good to see that the organisation’s annual telethon on World Refugee Day (June 20) raised $1.34 million.

This story is not just about refugees and asylum seekers. The Federal Government has for years struggled with the ongoing problem of non-citizens overstaying their visas. The Canberra Times reported in 2017 that more than 64,000 people were in Australia illegally, after overstaying work and tourist visas. The Federal Government estimated as many as 12,000 have been here for more than 20 years.

For certain the population of refugees in ‘closed detention’ would include overstayers who have been picked up one way or the other. People who come to Australia on a tourist or working visa and overstay by 28 days or more face deportation and a three-year ban on being issued with another Australia visa.

A good start with Nauru, but surely it is time to sort this mess out and restore Australia’s reputation of a fair go for all.

Footnote: These are my personal opinions and not those of the community refugee support group to which I belong

  • based on the estimated annual cost ($40,000) of keeping one person in prison (in Queensland)


  1. Great article Bob. On an issue close to my heart. I’m running a benefit concert with Welcome To Maleny in 5 weeks. I’ll let you know about that closer to the time

  2. Thanks Simon, I will send you the articles which appeared tin local papers.

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