A brief timeline of significant events relating to the ongoing detention of asylum seekers by the Australian Government. More detailed timelines are available from the Immigrant Health Service of the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, and the Refugee Council of Australia.
The Tampa Affair
In August of 2001, a Norwegian container ship, the MV Tampa, intercepted a distressed fishing vessel off the coast of Christmas island containing 433 refugees, rescuing everyone onboard. What followed was an international crisis with the governments of Indonesia, Norway, and Australia refusing to accept responsibility for the asylum-seekers.
Unwilling and unable to safely move the seriously unwell refugees into international waters, the ship’s captain pleaded with Australian authorities to allow the ship to dock at Christmas Island.
After the government repeatedly refused this request, the ship’s captain entered Australian waters, unable to wait further for medical assistance. In response, the SAS was dispatched to the ship, at which point most of the refugees were taken to Australian detention camps in the sovereign country of Nauru.
The “Pacific Solution”
Following the Tampa Affair, the Howard Government quickly passed the Border Protection Bill of 2001 several days later, giving officials the authority to forcibly remove vessels from Australian waters and detain those on board, retroactively making its actions during the Tampa Affair legal. Signed into law in the run-up to the 2001 federal election, Howard’s border crackdown won him popular support among the public and helped secure a Liberal/National coalition victory.
This led to the adoption of what became known as the “Pacific Solution,” a government policy in place from 2001 to 2007 in which asylum-seekers were relocated to third countries. Almost all were taken to Australian detention camps hosted on Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, in exchange for aid.
By the time the strategy was dismantled by the first Rudd administration in 2008, some 1,637 refugees had been illegally detained offshore and made an example of to deter future arrivals.
Oxfam/A Just Australia Report Highlights Psychological Impacts of Detention
A report released as a collaboration between A Just Australia and Oxfam Australia gives a detailed picture of life in offshore detention. It finds that:
“Medical studies, figures from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), testimony from staff and former asylum seekers on Nauru all paint a shocking picture of psychological
damage for the detainees – including 45 people engaged in a serious hunger strike, multiple incidents of actual self-harm and dozens of detainees suffering from depression and other psychological conditions each year…”
It also questions the economic reasoning of the strategy, estimating it to have cost $1 billion total, or half a million dollars per refugee.
Gillard Reopens Manus & Nauru
Julia Gillard elects to follow in John Howard’s footsteps and restart the Pacific Solution, reopening detention centres on Manus and Nauru. She describes the approach as both “hardline” and “humane.”
Rudd Approves PNG Solution
During his short second term office, Kevin Rudd announces with PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill in Brisbane that the two countries have struck a deal to send all asylum-seekers arriving in Australia to Manus Island. He also announces that the Manus detention centre would expand its capacity from 600 to 3,000, and that those found to be “legitimate” refugees would be resettled in PNG. Protests follow in capital cities across Australia.
Operation Sovereign Borders
Following the Coalition victory in the 2013 Federal Election, the Abbot Government launches the still ongoing Operation Sovereign Borders– militarized patrolling of Australian territorial waters focused on turning back foreign boat arrivals.
Critics note that the number of unlawful arrivals by boat pales in comparison to those who arrive by plane with valid visas. Nevertheless, the seas remain the focal point of anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment. The operation is accompanied by dramatic advertisements that stoke racial fears.
UNHRC Report on Torture
In its report on international allegations of cruelty and torture, the United Nations Special Rapporteur addresses four cases relating to Australia’s refugee policy. The contraventions include violence against detainees on Manus, the use of indefinite detention, the detention of children, and detention at sea. The Rapporteur finds in each case that Australia “has violated the rights of migrants and asylum seekers to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, as provided by articles 1, 3, and 16 of the Convention Against Torture.”
The ABF is Founded
The Australian Border Force (ABF) is formally created, the culmination of a years-long plan by then Immigration Minister Scot Morrison dating back to Operation Sovereign Borders. The newly formed ABF takes over customs operations at the nation’s ports of entry as a single law enforcement agency with a broad remit. In 2017, the ABF would be placed in the portfolio of the newly created Department of Home Affairs under its first minister, Peter Dutton.
Manus “Closes” Again
Following a ruling by the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court that Australia’s detention of asylum seekers violated the right to liberty guaranteed by its own Constitution, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill announces that the detention centre on Manus Island will close. The refugee population decreases as some are moved to the United States or New Zealand for resettlement, but several hundred remain by as late as 2019.
Three weeks before the the Australian Government ceases operations at the centre in late 2017, 32 year-old Sri Lankan national Rajeev Rajendran is found dead at Lorengau Hospital on the island, the second suspected suicide in as many months. He is one of at least a dozen people to die in offshore detention, as tracked by the Monash University Border Deaths Database.
A bill narrowly passes in the Parliament giving greater authority to medical experts when determining the necessity of medical evacuation for refugees offshore. It also curtails the ability of the government to override medical evacuation, except in specific circumstances. Polling shows a majority of public support behind the bill. By September, there are over 110 medical evacuations.
In a stunning victory, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is elected for a full term. While refugee resettlement in the United States continue, shock and despair take a sharp psychological toll. In the weeks following the election, more than 70 suicide attempts are reported.
Remaining Refugees on Manus Transferred to Bomana
The remaining refugees on Manus Island, all men, are transferred to Bomana, an Australian-funded prison in PNG’s capital of Port Moresby. Meant to accelerate their signing repatriation agreements, conditions in Bomana are atrocious compared even to Manus. Testimony from detainees and leaked photos reveal that life in Bomana is tantamount to torture, with inadequate food, shelter, and no access to mobile phones, lawyers, or medication. Several quickly sign repatriation agreements and are moved to hotels in the city.
Before a close and dramatic vote, independent Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie strikes a deal with the Coalition to join One Nation in backing the repeal of the Medevac legislation. By a margin of 37 to 35, the bill is repealed. However, medical evacuations largely continue.
Last Refugees Leave Bomana
Bowing to pressure from international activists and advocates, including Moresby-based priest Father Giorgio Licini, the final 18 refugees who had refused to sign repatriation agreements are released from Bomana into hotels. Advocates report that the men are in an extremely weakened physical and mental state, and while it is not immediately clear why the release occurred, many speculate that the detainees were nearing death in the prison.
Dutton Fails to Seize Phones
In May, Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton puts before Parliament an amendment to The Migration Act. The bill would add SIM cards and cell phones to the list of items that can be designated as a “prohibited thing,” and searched and seized without warrant in immigration detention. It is part of Dutton’s long-running project of specifically depriving refugees of communication with the outside world.
After passing in the House, and following a wave of popular opposition, the amendment failed in the Senate with the deciding vote (again) of Jacqui Lambi. Lambi, who was “on the fence” about the bill, surveyed over 100,000 Australians and decided to vote against the measure in line with 96% of respondents.