The Australian government has confirmed plans to transfer all asylum seeker and refugee children from Nauru to Australia by Christmas. This news comes after mounting pressure from the public, medical and legal organisations, human rights and refugee advocate groups, thousands of doctors, as well as from within the government’s own party, calling on the government to urgently bring the remaining children and their families to Australia for urgent medical treatment.
While this news is very much welcomed, the remaining 38 children and their families need to be evacuated immediately.
The situation on Nauru is a severe humanitarian and medical emergency. There have been multiple distressing reports of asylum seekers and refugee children self-harming, including a 12 year old girl attempting to set herself on fire, and numerous diagnoses of traumatic withdrawal syndrome, or resignation syndrome, that involves social withdrawal and the failure to speak, eat or drink. A 12 year old Iranian boy was recently airlifted to Australia from Nauru after he refused all food and medical treatment for almost three weeks.
Some of these children have been left languishing for five years or more on Nauru; a small pacific island only 20.98 square kilometres in size (smaller than Melbourne airport; less than half the size of Oxford) that, alongside PNG, has been at the centre of Australia’s offshore detention regime.
The Australian government must stop stalling and evacuate now in order to prevent further health deterioration. It can do so now – in fact, it has the power to bring all the asylum seekers and refugees currently in offshore detention on Nauru and PNG immediately to Australia, as urged by the UNHCR.
The remaining adults (approximately 1,000 if the families are brought with the children) on Nauru and Manus Island are also suffering, falling victim to Australia’s inhuman and illegal offshore detention regime that has seen approximately 3,000 refugees and asylum seekers imprisoned on Nauru or Manus Island, PNG for over 5 years. Just this week two Manus Island refugees have attempted suicide.
Several key questions remain to be answered.
First, where will these children and their families be resettled? Will they be able to permanently resettle in Australia? Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott have stated that they will never be able to settle in Australia permanently, with Dutton saying that after receiving medical treatment, the expectation is that they will return to their country of origin. This latter option would inevitably put Australia in breach of its non-refoulement obligations under international law.
Some, but not all, may receive resettlement in the US under the Australia–United States Resettlement Arrangement. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has stated that while it may accept New Zealand’s offer to resettle up to 150 refugees, this would be conditional on the passing of the travel ban Bill that has been dormant in the Senate since 2016. This bill imposes a lifetime travel ban on asylum seekers who arrived by boat and transferred for offshore processing from ever applying for a visa to enter Australia.
Second, does this news mark the beginning of the end of Australia’s offshore detention regime? As argued by a former Department of Home Affairs official, the bedrock of Australia’s deterrence regime to prevent people arriving by boat is its turnback policy, not indefinite offshore detention. However, ministers state that the government will continue its policy of transferring all asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boat to offshore detention centres. Additionally, it has been reported that Canstruct has had its contract to run the Nauru detention centre renewed for a further 6 months.
Lastly, and deserving critical attention, what about addressing the crisis occurring in our onshore detention centres?
It is clear that our fight to end Australia’s inhumane and punitive immigration and asylum regime is far from over. However, if the last few weeks have shown us anything, it is that when the Australian people and civil society join forces, we see change. It is time to evacuate everyone now.