The barbarism of Australia’s system of mandatory and indefinite detention is well documented: psychological and physical torture, deprivation, intimidation and physical violence, rapes, murders, endless years locked away and refoulement to persecution and even death. Despite Australia being a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, obliging it to offer protection and safety to those fleeing persecution, successive governments have denied thousands of men, women and children their right to seek safety.
Liberal Party prime ministers in particular have made mantras out of their cruelty. John Howard proclaimed, “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” in a speech that was reprinted on thousands of election pamphlets in 2001. Scott Morrison propelled his political career with “stop the boats”—later immortalised as a trophy that sits on his prime ministerial desk.
The immigration apparatus pieced together by the Labor and Liberal parties, based on indefinite mandatory detention, is the envy of the far right internationally. How did we get to this point? Through a series of policy changes, each crueller than the last, that, over the course of 30 years has normalised—made acceptable—the torture of refugees for political gain.
Bob Hawke’s Labor government, when it empowered immigration officials to detain anyone suspected of being an “illegal entrant” in 1989, began creating the modern “border protection” system. Two years later, in October 1991, a detention centre in Port Hedland took its refugee inmates. On the northern coast of Western Australia, 1,638km from Perth, an old BHP accommodation site had been purchased by the federal government and enclosed in barbed wire. Refugees fleeing the war in Cambodia were the first to be imprisoned there; they were taken from their boats—often leaking, overcrowded fishing vessels—and herded into the facility.
In 1992, Prime Minister Paul Keating introduced mandatory detention for all refugees arriving by boat. Later that year, mandatory detention was expanded to include anyone not holding a correct visa, regardless of how they arrived. Two years later, and still under a Labor government, mandatory detention was made indefinite, meaning that someone without documents, or with the wrong documents, theoretically could be imprisoned for life without trial.
“Imprisoned” is not an exaggeration. Refugee detention facilities are run like jails. Australasian Correctional Management, a private security company that ran six detention centres from 1998 to 2003, in an early stocktake at the now decommissioned Woomera detention centre in South Australia, listed the following equipment at the disposal of guards: 48 standard ring batons, 48 grenade grip batons, 55 riot helmets, 48 riot vests, 48 riot shields, 48 protection guard sets, 54 pairs of handcuffs, 32 knives and 85 gas masks—which presumably would be used when guards deployed the tear gas that was also catalogued in the stocktake.
A former employee reported to the 2006 People’s Inquiry into Detention that when she went to her supervisor with concerns about the mental health of a bedridden refugee, she was told: “Tell the fucking lazy bitch to get out of bed and help herself”. When she raised the situation with her shift manager, she was told to “poke her [the refugee] with a stick to see if she’s dead”.
The former chair of Suicide Prevention Australia, Dr Michael Dudley, argued in 2003 that indefinite detention “amounts to state-sponsored trauma and child neglect and/or abuse”, after calculating that the suicide rate for men and women in detention centres was 41 and 26 times higher than the national average. The male rate was almost twice as high as that of male prisoners. This was almost twenty years ago: conditions for refugees have only worsened since.
In 2015, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton used the Border Force Act to make it illegal for any doctor or other worker to speak out about the conditions in detention centres. Anyone defying the order faced two years in jail. Advocacy group Doctors for Refugees pointed out that what would be illegal in all other healthcare scenarios—not reporting abuse or mistreatment, particularly of children—was now required by law when treating refugees.
Detention centres were often established far from major cities and in inhospitable climates to make the conditions as gruelling as possible, to make it difficult for the refugees to receive visitors and to isolate them from potential solidarity. For example, Woomera was built in the South Australian desert, and Curtin, built in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, was described by Howard-era Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock as the country’s “most primitive” centre.
In 2001, the Howard government went even further, opening prisons on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island with the support of the Labor opposition. This was the so-called Pacific solution, announced in the middle of a three-month long refugee crisis.
August to October 2001 was a brutal turning point for refugees. First came the Tampa affair, when a Norwegian container ship was refused entry to Australian waters to prevent more than 400 refugees on board from seeking asylum. (They had been rescued from a sinking vessel in the Indian Ocean.) A week later, Howard launched Operation Relex: a military surveillance exercise in the waters between Indonesia and Australia.
Then came the “children overboard” scandal. SIEV 4 (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel 4), a small fishing boat, was spotted on 6 October carrying 223 people, including 76 children. The next morning, an Australian Navy ship fired warning shots ahead of the boat, before starting to tow it back to Indonesia as it quickly filled with water. When the media picked up the story, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock falsely accused refugees of throwing their children overboard. Howard soon backed him, saying: “I can’t comprehend how genuine refugees would throw their children overboard”. As the boat sank, almost all of those on board were forced into the water. It was actually the directives of Ruddock and Howard to force the refugees back, rather than aid them, that resulted in the children being forced into the ocean.
The worst was still to come. Weeks later, on 19 October 2001, 353 people onboard the SIEV X died at sea, despite the unprecedented surveillance of Operation Relex. The Navy was aware of the boat five days before it sank. Defence had received a warning that the vessel was in grave danger of sinking. The Australian government had fleets of ships and planes at its disposal. Yet not a single effort was made to save those on board.
Refugees have not simply been victims, however. There has been heroic resistance from the beginning: hunger strikes, people sewing their lips shut, riots and fires have been used to draw attention to their plight.
Starting in Port Hedland in 1992, refugees from China locked themselves on the roof, threatening to jump, while others staged a hunger strike. On New Year’s Day 2003, refugees at Baxter detention centre in South Australia, which was modelled on a high-security prison, were tear-gassed, handcuffed and left outside in the searing summer sun all day with no water after protesting the previous night. As news of the brutality filtered out, protests and fires ripped through centres at Woomera, Port Hedland, Villawood (Sydney) and Christmas Island.
In March 2011, hundreds of refugees detained on Christmas Island rioted for a week, burned down buildings and escaped from the facility. A month later, more than 100 refugees set fire to buildings and took to the roof of Villawood. An Iranian refugee involved in the protest told the Sydney Morning Herald, “We were desperate ... I’m not an animal, I’m human. I’ve been in the detention centre for 20 months”.
Significant protests have also taken place in solidarity with refugees. Tens of thousands joined marches across the country in the early 2000s. A national convergence of refugee rights activists at Woomera over the Easter weekend in 2002 managed, along with the detainees themselves, to tear down one of the fences, helping some refugees escape. When Prime Minister Kevin Rudd locked out all refugees arriving by boat in 2013, thousands protested in major cities every weekend for more than a month.
When Howard lost the election in 2007, many felt the tide was turning for refugees. There were some small reprieves in the first few years of the first Rudd government: Manus Island and Nauru were closed, temporary protection visas (which deny refugees in the community basic rights and leave the possibility of future deportation hanging over them) were abolished, and processing times were reduced. But the infrastructure of indefinite detention remained intact. A new detention centre was opened and later expanded on Christmas Island.
When Julia Gillard won the Labor leadership in 2010, she insisted that her government would again look for offshore solutions to boat arrivals. Her government also opened Scherger detention centre on an air force base outside of Weipa in far north Queensland. After a failed attempt to “swap” one group of refugees for another with Malaysia in 2011—which was ruled unlawful by the High Court—Gillard reopened the prisons on Nauru and Manus Island in 2012. She also worked with the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka to prevent Tamil refugees from escaping the genocide and expelled 650 Tamils from Australian detention centres back to Sri Lanka.
But the lowest point for refugees came during Rudd’s second term as prime minister. On 19 July 2013, he announced: “As of today, refugees who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia”. With this, the PNG solution, the door was finally, and permanently slammed shut for refugees seeking protection.
The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre reports that, as a result of Rudd and Gillard’s 2012-13 policies: 3,127 refugees have been held in offshore detention; more than 230 are still on Manus Island and Nauru; at least fourteen have lost their lives; more than 1,000 are in community detention or on short-term bridging visas; and 700 have been returned to their country of origin, often facing persecution or death.
Today, the situation for refugees is terrible. Operation Sovereign Borders, overseen by successive Liberal governments since 2013, stopped almost all boat arrivals by towing people back to Indonesia or international waters in operations shrouded in secrecy. Temporary protection visas are back, which deny upwards of 30,000 refugees the right to work or to access welfare or public education. The callous treatment of the Muruguppan family, snatched from their home in Biloela, Queensland, in 2018, is just one example of the modern hell that is the Australian refugee system.
It has been a monstrous three decades for refugees trying to seek safety in Australia. They have been left to drown at sea, imprisoned in desert and offshore camps and denied the rights owed to them under the very Refugee Convention that Australia helped draft after the Second World War. Many of those who have made it out of detention are still denied basic rights. The blame for this lies squarely with generations of politicians from both the Liberal and Labor parties.