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Australia’s decision to fund an empty detention centre raises questions

Australia's Nauru detention centre sits empty as last remaining refugee is evacuated


Australia’s Nauru detention centre left empty as last refugee is evacuated, marking the end of over a decade of processing asylum seekers on the tiny Pacific island. The controversial facility, described as a place of “indefinite despair” and “sustained abuse” by organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières and Human Rights Watch, has been a contentious issue for Australia’s human rights record. However, despite its vacancy, the Australian government, under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, intends to continue funding the centre to keep it open as a deterrent, with expenditures reaching millions of dollars annually.

The recent evacuation serves as a poignant reminder of the experiences endured by those held on Nauru. Maria, a survivor of female genital mutilation from Somalia, shares her harrowing journey. She escaped civil war and embarked on a perilous journey by plane and boat to reach Australia. Her time at sea was agonizing, and she recalls the cramped conditions and lack of sanitation on the small vessel. Eventually rescued by the Australian Navy, Maria was subsequently transferred to Nauru, where she faced further hardships. The island’s extreme climate, inadequate facilities, and dehumanizing treatment by guards created a hostile environment for refugees like Maria.

After leaving Nauru, Maria was detained in Sydney before being released on a bridging visa. However, the uncertainty of her visa’s renewal every six months continues to cast a shadow of fear and insecurity over her life. This sense of limbo is a common experience for many refugees in Australia, as they navigate an uncertain future and live with the constant threat of being returned to detention.

Australia’s offshore processing policy, introduced in 2001, has been a controversial aspect of the country’s approach to border protection. While successive prime ministers have argued that offshore processing is necessary to safeguard national borders and combat human trafficking, critics contend that it has done little to deter maritime arrivals or save lives at sea. In recent years, the government has shifted its focus to boat “turnbacks,” effectively removing migrant vessels from Australian waters and returning them to their countries of departure.

Despite the cessation of new arrivals to the offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, Australia has faced challenges in extricating itself from these arrangements. Mounting health crises and instances of self-harm among child detainees prompted special legislative schemes to evacuate individuals from the islands. Currently, Nauru remains vacant, but around 80 people previously held by the Australian government still find themselves trapped in Papua New Guinea.

Throughout the past decade, numerous UN bodies have expressed concerns about Australia’s offshore processing policy, while 14 people have tragically lost their lives in detention, with approximately half of those deaths attributed to suicide. In 2020, the International Criminal Court declared Australia’s policies unlawful and degrading, although not subject to prosecution. Despite the gradual shift away from offshore processing, Australia recently signed a substantial contract with a US prison company to maintain the Nauru facility until at least 2025, ensuring the capability to process any potential unauthorized maritime arrivals.

Critics argue that offshore processing remains a costly bipartisan policy, driven by political calculations rather than humanitarian considerations. However, there are signs of changing attitudes toward deterrence-based border control, with polling indicating an increase in public support for openness to people from around the world. Nonetheless, for refugees like Maria, uncertainty and the impact of these policies on their lives continue to be an ongoing reality.

As Australia reflects on the empty Nauru detention centre, the last detainee’s departure marks the end of an era defined by offshore processing. However, the legacy of this policy and its human toll remain subjects of ongoing debate and advocacy, as Australia grapples with the complex intersection of border protection, humanitarian concerns, and public sentiment.

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