The Pacific Solution: never again!

Review: The Pacific Solution
By Susan Metcalfe, Australian Scholarly Publishing, $24.95

The recent decision by the High Court in favour of two Tamil asylum seekers (see article here) has again focused attention on the inhumanity inherent in Australia’s system of offshore processing.

Yet Labor says that the High Court decision won’t deter them from imposing a “regional processing centre” on East Timor, while Shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison insists on re-visiting the nightmare of detention on Nauru.

It’s timely therefore that Susan Metcalfe, a refugee advocate who visited Nauru on ten separate occasions, has published The Pacific Solution. Her book vividly describes the trauma, mental illness, self-harm and medication dependence that the Howard government’s policies caused to thousands of asylum seekers sent to rot in malaria and dengue fever ridden detention camps on Nauru and PNG between 2001 and 2008.

While always troubled by the mistreatment of asylum seekers, Metcalfe recounts how an opinion piece by Phillip Ruddock, sent in a reply to a letter she’d written,“changed the course of my life for the next decade”. In it, Ruddock claimed that to support people arriving by boats amounted to “aligning ourselves with criminals”.

Metcalfe’s book blends commentary on the political machinations surrounding Howard’s ominously named “Pacific Solution” with detailed emotive stories of the personal connections she made with wave after wave of asylum seekers sent to rot on Nauru—at first Afghans and Iraqis, and from 2007 Sri Lankans and Burmese.

Although she was unable to visit Nauru until 2005, she fills some gaps by using the monthly medical reports of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), who did Australia’s dirty work running the offshore camps—although it was a bureaucratic nightmare to obtain the reports. These undoubtedly sanitised accounts, nonetheless, make for depressing reading.

Metcalfe starts The Pacific Solution by recounting the Howard government’s gung-ho militaristic response to the Tampa’s rescue of 433 asylum seekers onboard the Palapa, an overcrowded Indonesian fishing boat. It was late August 2001, and with a federal election looming, a solution to the so-called “crisis” had to be found.

Having failed to persuade the Indonesian government to take the asylum seekers back (with then President Megawati refusing to take Howard’s calls), Foreign Minister Alexander Downer turned to a cash-strapped Nauru and its corrupt President Rene Harris. “That worked a treat,” he said, later bragging that Howard was “seriously pleased” with him for “fixing up this problem”.

While the detainees did their best to survive, Metcalfe notes that, “Australian politics was the invisible, but always foreboding, presence in their lives.”

In February 2002, Ruddock allowed then opposition immigration spokesperson Julia Gillard to tag along on his trip to Nauru and Manus Island. One detainee, Nabi, remembers him saying, “You all go back, you can all go back to Afghanistan, it is safe, Taliban is gone”. Later in the book, Ruddock is quoted saying that the much lower approval rate for asylum seekers processed offshore meant that the Pacific Solution was “succeeding”.

Metcalfe reminds us that by Christmas Eve 2002, unrest broke out on Nauru, in support of a group of Iraqi women and children detainees whose claims were rejected despite their husbands already being granted refugee status in Australia. The end of 2003 saw a mass hunger strike by Hazaras.
By late 2004, all but 81 detainees were off Nauru, with most eventually accepted as refugees, while only one detainee remained on Manus Island (25 year old stateless Palestinian Aladin Sisalem).

In a chapter titled, “The Lonely Last”, Metcalfe details the suffering inflicted on Sagar and Faisal, the final two Nauru detainees, who in August 2005 were assessed by ASIO as being a risk to Australia’s national security.

Metcalfe uses Department of Immigration statistics to show how ridiculous the “Pacific Solution” actually was. From September 2001 to March 2008 a total of 1637 people were detained on Nauru and PNG at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. The average length of stay in the camps was 501 days. Australia eventually took 705 people, New Zealand 401, Sweden 21, Canada 16, Denmark 6 and Norway 4.

Most of the 485 cajoled into returning home were Afghan, and as subsequent Edmund Rice Centre research revealed, some of them were killed after their return.

Although called the “Pacific Solution”, only Nauru and PNG ever signed up to house asylum seekers bound for Australia. Despite Canberra’s economic and military dominance in the region, many impoverished nations, including Kiribati, Fiji, Palau, Tuvalu, Tonga, French Polynesia and East Timor refused.

Unfortunately, at times, Metcalfe injects a discordant note into the book, implying that it was she alone who understood the plight of asylum seekers on Nauru. Other advocates are described as people prone to “bullying” with “a pervasive and negative sprit of competitiveness”, were jealous guardians of their relationships with individual asylum seekers, or were insensitive in their encouragement of ex-detainees to take their stories to the media.

At other times she seems dismissive of activists who employ “a confrontational, highly publicised stance…in dealing with an obstinate government”, saying that “although I still shudder at the chill Ruddock injects when he speaks about refugees, I can rarely see the benefit of regurgitating anger or outrage, or in placing refugees in the firing line”.

Metcalfe’s focus on her version of advocacy leads her to largely omit the contribution of the mass grassroots activist campaign—the protests, The Flotilla of Hope, the musicians, artists, playwrights, etc—that played such a role in turning public opinion against the Pacific Solution.

Whether because of the intensity of her involvement with asylum seekers on Nauru, or her tendency to personalise rather than politicise their maltreatment, she breathes a sigh of relief when the Rudd government finally closes Nauru in April 2008. But she was obviously aware that Labor’s “Indian Ocean Solution”, centred on a still excised Christmas Island, remained firmly intact.

The book’s back cover says, “We are challenged to ensure that the political policy that underpinned such trauma remains dead and buried forever”.

Unfortunately, with Christmas Island, the “East Timor Solution”, and the Liberals’ calls to re-open Nauru, ending offshore processing once and for all remains an unfinished task for the refugee rights movement.

By Mark Goudkamp


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  1. Thanks for writing this review of my book Mark. Someone sent me the link and I would just like to quickly reply to a few points.

    My book largely celebrates the actions of advocates and your reference to me describing other advocates as
    people prone to

    “bullying” with “a pervasive and negative sprit of competitiveness”, were jealous guardians of their relationships with individual asylum seekers, or were insensitive in their encouragement of ex-detainees to take their stories to the media

    refers to comments I made at different times throughout the book about only a minority of people involved in refugee advocacy or support. These elements were certainly present (and probably are to degrees in every advocacy movement) and I do write about them. But you don’t mention that the book is largely about the enormous efforts by Australian advocates and supporters to support and fight for the freedom of refugees in the offshore camps.

    I tried mostly to focus on the actions taken by Australians who usually receive little or no attention and there were many, many more that I have not included in the book. I perhaps should have referred to the flotilla of hope but this was not a deliberate omission. I am sure there are hundreds of other people who may feel that they should be included but I hope that the overwhelmingly generous spirit of advocacy that came from many Australians in general comes through in the numerous people I have mentioned. They surely deserve to be there.

    My background is in the arts community and there is no deliberate exclusion of the widespread advocacy in Australia from artists, which I do mention at some point. My attention was more focused, as I say, on some of the people who have not received too much attention, people who were very directly involved for long periods, whilst trying to tell the overall story of the Pacific Solution. If I had been writing a more general book about advocacy for asylum seekers in Australia my attention would have been broader.

    I of course don’t believe that ‘I alone understood the plight of asylum seekers on Nauru’. Many hundreds of people were involved with advocacy and support for people in Nauru in particular. I just offer my personal perspective, which I think is valid as I spent so many years of my life focusing on the subject (still do), dealing with the people there, and travelling to Nauru. Numerous others would also have an equally valid perspective.

    My way of working is always to consult, take advice, consult, take advice and I have always deferred to the advice of legal representatives involved at particular times. I may not always agree with the legal representative but the person has appointed them to make decisions and they may be in possession of information that others are not. I also follow closely what a refugee or asylum seeker says they want for themselves, in the end it is their life and they will have to live with the consequences of any actions taken.

    I am not dismissive of highly publicised and confrontational stances. As I say in the book, this is sometimes the only way, and it too often was during the period I discuss in the book. I often helped to create more public attention. But I don’t see the point, as some do, in constantly ranting with anger. I think a more strategic approach adapted to the situation and all its elements is more useful. Sometimes diplomatically, sometimes not. But most important is that the person is not placed in a more dangerous situation.

    I do not support processing in Christmas Island, and I never have, and I do mention Rudd’s continuation of offshore processing on Christmas Island as being slanted towards political rather than humanitarian ends. But the closure of the camps in other countries, in Nauru and PNG, was hugely significant for many reasons. Not least being the freedom of the 90 people who were detained in Nauru at the time. And previous refugees who had been held in Nauru and PNG had continued to be haunted by memories of their detention many years later so the closure was important for them as well. I think we should all be relieved that those camps are no longer operating. I also note that as Christmas Island is part of Australia, legal loopholes were often discussed.

    In my book I do offer my point of view at different times and it is just that, my point of view. You may disagree. I have much more self doubt about my views than you suggest and I am sorry that you have come away with the view that you have. There were many things that I could not discuss in the book, for a variety of reasons, and their inclusion may have provided more clarity.

    Susan Metcalfe

  2. Hi Susan, I’m sorry that it has taken more than a week to respond to you….c’est la vie.

    Thank you for clarifying a number of issues that arose out of my review of your book. I am encouraged by your comments that the overwhelming sentiment that you wanted to convey was one of celebrating the great efforts that advocates put into campaigning to end the Pacific Solution. It’s just that the minority of cases where I felt you savaged other advocates stood out and jarred when I read them, which might explain what you view as a disproportionate reaction.

    I also confess that I missed any reference you made to supporting “highly publicised and confrontational stances” as the way to deal with an obstinately racist government. Certainly the Refugee Action Coalition which I have been a part of for a decade, doesn’t think that tearing down fences or disrupting events where the likes of Phillip Ruddock were the guest of honour is the only tactic worth employing. We’ve always celebrated the sheer diversity of the refugee movement, especially at its height.

    But I’m not sure what you mean about placing asylum seekers in danger. There were examples like the presenting of Alamdar and Muntazar Bakhtiari to the British High Commission in Melbourne which I think were very politically misguided, but I always tactically disagreed with those advocates who said that our convergences and protests at detention centres were counterproductive because of the cancellation of visits and the clampdown by the guards. The detainees I had contact with were overwhelmingly emotionally boosted by such actions, and they always created a new layer of committed refugee activists.

    I agree that the closure of Nauru and Manus Island was a positive thing…perhaps the only positive thing the Rudd/Gillard government has done regarding refugee policy besides the abolition of TPVs and the granting of work rights to asylum seekers on some classes of Bridging Visas. We obviously concur with our opposition to Xmas Island, but the response of the Refugee Action Coalition at the time they closed Nauru was to emphasise the “Indian Ocean Solution” that Labor was/is still committed to, rather than congratulating them. And to refute Gillard’s claim at the time that Labor stands against offshore processing. The chronic overflow of this Alcatraz and the appalling limbo the detainees find themselves in despite the recent High Court decision, are reasons for us to redouble our efforts to provide individual support to detainees, but also to resurrect the mass direct action campaign that existed under Howard, Ruddock, Downer, Vanstone, Andrews…the whole rotten lot.

    Already, I’ve heard that the Perth equivalent of RAC, the Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN) are planning to continue in the finest Easter tradition of protest convergences by making their way up to Curtin Detention Centre. Those of us in the Eastern states will need to work out a focus for action to coincide with their trek to the NW.

    Similarly, in the past two months, we have initiated an Open Letter to Jose Ramos Horta about our opposition to Labor’s imposition of the “East Timor Solution” on our impoverished neighbour, despite opposition from the local parliament and practically every person who lives there. I am aware that my colleague Julian (who wrote a review of your book for Green Left Weekly) was contacting you about signing onto it.

    Over the weekend, I attended a conference in Sydney put on by a group called the Cross-Border Collective. One of the workshops was a presentation by a couple of people who’ve worked in No Borders activist groups in Europe. It was chilling to see the degree to which some EU states are implementing policies not unlike Howard’s Pacific Solution…Italy’s bilateral relationship with Libya is a case in point.

    Yours sincerely
    Mark Goudkamp

    PS: I don’t know if you remember me…I was at the Gleebooks launch and you signed the book I bought. I tried to ask a question to counteract what I thought was an overwhelming pessimism about Australian public opinion that was coming from both yourself and David Marr.

  3. Dear Susan – I am currently visiting and advocating for a group of (mainly Tamil) refugees who have been given adverse security assessment by the ASIO and have been languishing in detention, in some cases now starting their 5th year. I am interested in what advocacy work you did for Mohammed Sagar. I would welcome an opportunity to speak with you. Rgards. Mike


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