They fled war, violence and torture at home, undertaking the perilous voyage to Australia in the hope of making new lives. Now, 400 men from the world's trouble spots are living 14 to a tent in sweltering conditions on the Pacific island of Nauru – with the prospect of spending five years there, separated from their families.
This is the reality of the Labor government's "Pacific Solution" for asylum-seekers, as described by an Amnesty International team which inspected the detention centre this week. "Conditions on Nauru are grim," Amnesty's Australian refugee co-ordinator, Graham Thom, told The Independent shortly after returning to Australia.
Though the first "boat people" were transferred to Nauru in mid-September, nine men are already on hunger strike, with one Kurdish man refusing food for 44 days to date. Another man tried to hang himself from a tent pole while Amnesty was visiting. Others have tried to commit suicide or have slashed themselves with knives. And two months on, processing of asylum claims has yet to begin.
Conditions on Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea – where the first batch of asylum-seekers, including four children, were sent this week – are understood to be little better. Even Ronnie Knight, the MP for Manus Island, warned that being confined there for five years would send people "stir crazy".
The irony is that during the three months since Julia Gillard's government resurrected the hated "Pacific Solution" – introduced by the former Prime Minister John Howard in 2001, and scrapped by Labor in 2007 – more than 7,000 asylum-seekers have arrived, more than in any previous three-month period.
Not only is the move not having the anticipated deterrent effect, but the two "offshore" facilities will soon be full. This week Labor announced that the overflow will be housed on the Australian mainland, but those people will be prohibited from working and will receive a meagre allowance that will condemn them to living below the poverty line.
Like those on Nauru and Manus, they will have to wait five years to be resettled, even if judged to be genuine refugees. The government argues that people who arrive by boat should not receive any advantage over those waiting in camps in transit countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia – and who typically wait about five years to be resettled. The conservative opposition's response to these latest measures is that it would force asylum-seekers to work for their A$219 (£142.50) a week allowance, and it would also slash the annual refugee intake.
While the government claims the crackdown is aimed at discouraging people from risking their lives in leaky boats, critics believe that – with an election due in the next 12 months – it has more to do with winning votes in working-class marginal electorates. "The politicians are now competing with each other to be the toughest, meanest and harshest," said Pamela Curr, campaign co-ordinator of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. "There's a real race to the bottom at the moment in Australia."
On Nauru, temperatures are reaching 40C at present. The tents, which flooded this week following monsoon rains, are like ovens during the day, according to Dr Thom. He said there was no shade outside, either. "Not a single blade of grass, or a tree. It's all gravel and rock.
"No one can sleep at night because some of the men are crying with worry about what's going on in their home countries with their families … They kept asking us: 'Why are we being treated like criminals?'"Reuse content