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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