You might have thought that anyone who made a perilous journey from dangerous, war-torn parts of West and Central Asia and Africa, and managed to make it to the shores of a wealthy, first-world country in Oceania in order to seek asylum, would be deserving of some sympathy. Since 2012, however, Australia has held all who arrive by such means in off-shore processing centres while their claims are determined. In practice, this has meant detention for an undefined time on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on the island micro-state of Nauru.
Conditions were so poor on Nauru that in 2016, Amnesty International issued a report describing the policy of exiling asylum seekers who arrived by boat as "cruel in the extreme". "Few other countries go to such lengths to deliberately inflict suffering on people seeking safety and freedom," said Amnesty's senior director for research, Anna Neistat.
The previous year, the UN's special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, wrote that the Australian government had failed to provide adequate detention conditions; failed to stop the detention of children; and failed to deal with the escalating violence at the regional processing centre on Manus Island. The government, he concluded, "has violated the right of the asylum seekers, including children, to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment".
Inmates alleged that they were threatened with rape. Another was murdered by guards. Papua New Guinea's supreme court ruled the Manus centre illegal in 2016, and the following year, the Australian government and contracting firms agreed to pay over A$70 million ($50m) in compensation to 1,900 detainees.
But the processing centre on Nauru remains open, and a recent report showed that the operating company made a profit of A$500,000 for every single person still held there. By August 2021 there were only 107 still present: last year, the cost to the Australian taxpayer to hold these poor souls in this purgatory was a staggering A$4.3m per person per year.
They have committed no crime. As an Australian Red Cross analysis puts it: "It is not illegal for people to flee persecution in their homeland or to cross borders without documents or passports in order to seek asylum. It is also not a crime under Australian law to arrive here by boat without a valid visa and ask for protection." Seventy-eight of them have been formally recognised as having refugee status, which places Australia under further legal obligations. Yet, genuine criminals might receive better treatment than they do.
Former UK prime minister John Major put the case for being more compassionate very eloquently last week, when he said: "Can it really be a crime to be frightened; homeless; desperate; destitute; fleeing from persecution, or war, or famine, or hardship; and to cross half the world on foot and dangerous waters in an unsafe boat, in the hope of finding a better life?"
Mr Major was referring to what he called the British government's proposals to "criminalise the migrants themselves", not just people traffickers; but his words are just as applicable to the Australian situation.
To be fair to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his administration, and to previous governments, the country has taken in reasonable numbers of people, resettling 18,200 refugees in 2020, for instance. But others – some transferred from Nauru – are now languishing for unknown periods in hotels in Australia. The spotlight only illuminated the cruel and unsavoury conditions in these detention centres when the tennis player Novak Djokovic was unlucky enough to be confined to one in Melbourne in January over a visa issue.
It is also true that the region's record when it comes to asylum-seekers is mixed. Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, caused a stir recently when she wrote in a newspaper column that "in the late 70s when we had many Vietnamese refugees landing on our shores, our then home minister announced that we would shoot any that washed up on our beaches".
The attribution was wrong, as she later admitted. It was her father Dr Mahathir, then the country's deputy prime minister, who made the statement – which the then Malaysian leader, Hussein Onn, had to contradict publicly in a letter to UN secretary general Kurt Waldheim. Nevertheless, antagonistic rhetoric aside, Malaysia did end up taking in 250,000 Vietnamese refugees over a period of years (not permanently, but still).
But if developing countries are reluctant to admit large numbers of asylum-seekers, it is hardly surprising. By definition, their populations are poorer and governments have less money to go round. The capacity of Bangladesh – with a GDP per capita of less than $2,000 – to cope with more than one million refugees (mainly Rohingya from Myanmar), is obviously far lower than that of Australia, where GDP per capita is nearly $52,000.
All of which makes the decision to continue keeping a little more than 100 refugees and asylum-seekers in Nauru at a cost of millions per person annually all the more wrong. Australia's draconian immigration policy, when it comes to people arriving by boat, may have succeeded in deterring vessels from making the journey. But then so might Dr Mahathir's idea of shooting desperate Vietnamese in the 1970s.
That wasn't considered even vaguely acceptable back then. Neither should Australia's treatment of those still marooned in Nauru. And if the country really wants to be welcomed as part of the Asian family of nations, it ought to consider the optics of paying phenomenal sums of money – just to keep a group composed mainly of Asians who, again, have committed no crime, off its pristine shores.