Last refugee held on Nauru arrives in Australia

While offshore detention policy is being wound down, campaigners say ‘dark chapter’ will not end until last refugees leave PNG.

File picture of a protester holding a placard during a rally in support of refugees in central Sydney, Australia
Australia's offshore detention policy has long been criticised at home and overseas [File: David Gray/Reuters]

The last refugee held on the Pacific island of Nauru under Australia’s notorious offshore detention policy has been evacuated to Australia, according to refugee advocacy groups.

The man arrived in Australia on Saturday night, after the government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, which was elected in 2022, said it would end a policy in place for more than 10 years.

“Over the past decade, our government stood by and witnessed abuse, assault, neglect, harm and suffering in offshore detention,” Jana Favero, director of advocacy at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said in a statement on Sunday. “Men, women and children sought safety and protection, yet we banished them simply for the sake of politics. We are thankful that the Albanese government has taken action and evacuated the last remaining refugees from Nauru. One chapter of misery is over.”

Australia resumed sending refugees to Nauru in 2013 under a previously abandoned offshore detention policy that was said to be necessary to stop people travelling to Australia in small boats. Such arrivals, who were also detained in Papua New Guinea (PNG), were told they would never have the right to settle in Australia even if they were found to have a valid claim for protection.

Refugee groups say some 3,127 people were sent to Nauru and PNG with many suffering mental and physical health problems as a result of their prolonged detention and separation from family. The policy was widely condemned by refugee advocates, rights groups and the United Nations.

Some families forcibly separated under the scheme have taken their cases to the UN.

A short-lived medical evacuation programme brought some to Australia while others have found permanent homes in other countries, including New Zealand and the United States. The remainder were sent back to the countries they had fled.

Some 80 people remain in PNG, and campaign groups say the government also needs to address their situation.

“Having spent billions to hold people in PNG, the Australian Government cannot just abandon them there. Many need critical medical support – all need the option to come to Australia while resettlement options are found,” Marie Hapke, convener of the Australian Refugee Action Network, said in the statement.

Offshore processing first began more than 20 years ago after an Indonesian fishing boat carrying more than 400 refugees and asylum seekers ran into trouble en route to Christmas Island, an Australian territory south of Java, and the crew of a Norwegian container ship – the Tampa – went to their rescue.

A standoff followed after the crew of the Tampa asked to dock on Christmas Island and Australia’s government told them to return to Indonesia.

Then Prime Minister John Howard, a conservative, came up with the ‘Pacific Solution’ to prevent the group from reaching Australia and brokered a deal with Nauru to take those rescued by the Tampa.

The policy was dropped in 2007 after elections brought a Labor government to power but was then reinstated in 2013 by a different Labor government as boat arrivals began to increase and elections loomed.

While Albanese has again signalled a break with the policy, his government has also said it will continue to maintain the offshore detention facilities in Nauru as a “contingency” at the cost of millions of Australian dollars each year.

“The history of offshore detention and human rights abuses on Nauru will forever stain the record of both sides of Australian politics,” said Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition. “Though they committed no crime, refugees sent to Nauru lost 10 years of their lives. As long as Nauru remains ‘open’ and refugees remain in limbo in PNG, the dark chapter of offshore detention will not be finally closed.”

Source: Al Jazeera