World News

Australians Protest Five Years of Offshore Detention Policy

Thousands protested in cities across Australia on Saturday to mark five years of a policy under which asylum-seekers and migrants have been turned away and detained on remote Pacific islands for years.

Posted Updated

Megan Specia
, New York Times

Thousands protested in cities across Australia on Saturday to mark five years of a policy under which asylum-seekers and migrants have been turned away and detained on remote Pacific islands for years.

Messages were read aloud from those still languishing in deteriorating conditions on the islands, years after being detained.

Since 2013, anyone trying to reach Australia by boat has been sent for processing to the islands of Manus, which is part of Papua New Guinea, and Nauru. In 2013, Kevin Rudd, then the prime minister of Australia, unveiled a policy that barred the migrants from being settled as refugees in Australia as part of a resettlement arrangement with Papua New Guinea.

In the years that followed, thousands were sent to offshore detention centers on the small Pacific islands as a result of the policy. Subsequent Australian administrations maintained the policy despite repeated calls from the U.N. Refugee Agency and international human rights groups, as well as Australian citizens, to end the detentions.

The protesters Saturday carried signs denouncing the policy and calling for those still on the islands to be resettled in Australia.

Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian refugee who has been held on Manus Island since 2013, thanked the Australian protesters in a post on his Facebook page. His message was read out at some of the rallies.

In it, he denounced the offshore detention policy of the Australian government, saying it is still damaging people.

“Those of us who remain continue to experience this suffering, wondering if we will ever be free to make our lives somewhere in peace and security, and free to see our families again,” Boochani wrote.

He detailed his daily life on Manus in a series of video diaries sent to The New York Times in 2016, and has been a vocal advocate for those detained under the Australian policy.

A Kurdish dissident journalist, Boochani fled his home country of Iran in 2013 after his offices were raided. He flew to Indonesia and paid smugglers to board a boat bound for Australian territory. But he arrived on July 23, 2013, four days after Australia signed the agreement with Papua New Guinea. He was taken to detention on Manus.

Since that time, he has remained on the island despite his refugee status. Last year, he was forcibly relocated to a new detention center on the island along with the hundreds of men who remain there.

“As you know, many innocent people on Manus and Nauru are still suffering,” he wrote in his Saturday message to the demonstrations. “Too many Australians are still indifferent to this, or too unsure of what to do. But you make us stronger.”

Australia has maintained that forbidding asylum-seekers and refugees who reach Australia by boat to enter the country discourages dangerous ocean crossings and human trafficking.

A few hundred people have been relocated to the United States since 2017 as part of a one-off resettlement deal between the U.S. government and Australia. But progress has been slow and the agreement, made under the Obama administration, has been repeatedly questioned by President Donald Trump. Australia has also rejected offers by New Zealand to take some of the refugees.

This month, the Australian government allowed a young girl in Nauru to seek medical care in Australia, the latest in a series of refugee children who sought treatment in the country.

About 1,600 people remain on the two islands, with 750 men on Manus and 850 men, women and children on Nauru, according to the most recent report from Human Rights Watch.

The rights group this week called on the Australian government to transfer the detainees on Manus and Nauru to Australia or a safe third country to “end this harmful practice of offshore processing once and for all.”

“Sending asylum-seekers offshore doesn’t free Australia of its obligations to these people,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “The past five years of this cruel policy should be fixed by transferring them and future arrivals to safe locations in Australia and abroad.”

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.