Australia’s very own Devil’s Island, Arnold Zable:

LAST Saturday at least 50 Sri Lankan asylum seekers on Nauru began a hunger strike. By the fifth day of the strike, seven had collapsed and required admission to hospital. Refugee advocates are deeply concerned by the potential damage they are doing to their minds and bodies. Yet it is not difficult to understand, and be profoundly disturbed by, the conditions that have prompted such drastic actions.

The hunger strikers say they’ve had enough of waiting for a decision to be made on their future. The statements they have painted on their placards are sadly familiar. They mirror the pleas of many asylum seekers detained on Nauru in recent years. “We are just living corpses,” reads one. “We are just wasting our time, energy, and youth instead of building our life,” says another. “Dear Australians, please help us,” implores a third. The detainees are pleading with the Howard Government to set a timetable for their claims to be processed.

There are 89 asylum seekers on Nauru. These include seven Burmese men who were picked up at Ashmore Reef in August last year and taken to Nauru last September. The remaining detainees – 82 Sri Lankans – were intercepted on a leaking fishing boat in February, having spent a month on Christmas Island without access to independent legal advice. They were cut off from the outside world during their initial interviews with the Immigration Department and transferred to Nauru in March. They had fled a dangerous predicament in their homeland where they were caught between a Government that is suspicious of Tamils and a radical movement that forcibly recruits young Tamil men.

The devil, however, is not in the detail of individual claims, but in the offshore processing system itself. Introduced by the Howard Government in 2001 after the Tampa affair, the Pacific Solution saw the creation of offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island, where asylum seekers were detained far removed from Australia, out of sight and out of mind.

The Sri Lankan asylum seekers on Nauru are being processed by immigration officials. In most cases this happens without legal representation.

Due to isolation and distance, it is extremely expensive and difficult to gain access to legal advice. David Manne, director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, relied on substantial private donations when he flew a team of lawyers and interpreters to Nauru in May to provide free legal assistance for 27 Sri Lankan asylum seekers. As Manne points out, the Pacific Solution results in a constructive denial of legal assistance and is intended to take people out of the realm of the Australian legal system. It is an attempt to assess refugee status outside the rule of law and places vulnerable people in a legal black hole.

Even if, after lengthy processing, an offshore asylum seeker is found to be a genuine refugee, the agony is far from over. There is no guarantee of resettlement, which remains completely at the discretionary whim of the Australian Government. The Howard Government has said it will not allow offshore asylum seekers to settle in Australia and is seeking third countries willing to take them off its hands. This may take years of negotiation and end up as an illusory hope. There is no proper process, no plan that guarantees a safe and secure means of gaining refuge and of rebuilding a traumatised life. As Manne puts it, detainees on Nauru have been cast into indefinite exile.

This is a terrifying predicament for any human being to be subjected to.

Numerous medical studies and personal testimonies have documented the severe psychological damage caused by indefinite detention. In recent years, asylum seekers on Nauru have fallen apart and been driven to madness and despair.

Indefinite exile compounds existing trauma suffered at the hands of tormentors in their home countries. As detainees have pointed out, at least a criminal knows the length of his sentence. The Sri Lankan hunger strikers have described their predicament as that of “walking zombies”.

It is also an extremely wasteful system. According to a recent report by Oxfam Australia, the Pacific Solution has cost taxpayers more than $1 billion to process just 1700 asylum seekers at a cost of $500,000 for each detainee. The Manus Island detention centre, which has been empty since 2004 is being maintained at the cost of $2 million a year.

Australia remains a signatory to the 1951 UN refugee conventions, which enshrined the search for asylum as a basic human right. These conventions emerged after World War II. The conventions are based on the hard-won understanding that the right to seek refuge is one of the foundations of a civilised society.

This was understood by seafaring peoples who developed codes for the treatment of strangers who washed up on their shores. First, the stranger is greeted and fed, and given a roof over their head, and only then is he asked questions.

These societies understood that with one shift in the wind, the situation could be reversed.

Offshore processing is a cynical backdoor method of tearing up international treaties to which we are signatories. It is alarming that it has taken a hunger strike to bring these issues back into the public domain. For asylum seekers, already traumatised and vulnerable, Nauru is Australia’s very own Devil’s Island. The centre should be closed down and remembered as a place where human rights were grossly denied, and the bonds of civility cut asunder.

Arnold Zable is president of Melbourne International PEN. His most recent novel is Scraps of Heaven.

* I have heard, or previously read elsewhere, that the only way an asylum seeker may gain legal representation is by being able to name the individual they want to represent them. Then, and only then, can/will the immigration officer make attempts to get them legal representation. 

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