The Pacific solution: Australia’s cruel refugee policy

On the small, poverty-stricken Pacific island nation of Nauru, an immigration detention centre houses hundreds of so-called ‘boat people’, the name given to refugees that try to enter Australia on shipping vessels. This centre, and its partnered centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, form part of the Australian Government’s ‘Pacific Solution’ – a radical, and frequently condemned, policy aimed at curbing the tide of refugees from the Middle East and South Asia fleeing on boats to the nation. More than simply being a radical policy, these detention centres have become a hotbed for human rights violations, often operating outside the rule of law, and shielding systemic abuse from international watchdogs and journalists.


In August 2001, the Liberal-National Government led by John Howard forced a decisive shift in Australia’s refugee policy. In the previous year, Australia had seen over 5,000 people arrive by unauthorised boat. Under intense political pressure, and the threat of a large Norwegian freighter called the Tampa docking in Australian territory with 433 additional asylum applicants, Howard ordered the Australian special forces to seize the boat and divert its course. In the immediate aftermath of the so-called Tampa affair, the Pacific Solution was established.

Under Australian law, once refugees land in Australia they are entitled to apply for asylum – so the Howard Government revised what comprised Australia’s migrant zone to take peripheral islands out of the territory migrants could legally land on to claim asylum. Australian Defence Forces were then tasked to intercept vessels carrying asylum applicants and divert them to the newly-founded immigration detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

The following year, just one person arrived in Australia by unauthorised boat. While the policy was a success in terms of curbing asylum applicants, it has been condemned as an assault on human rights by international organisations, including the United Nations. Shortly after the policy was enacted, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ representative to Australia stated that it was, in their view, the “the most severe asylum system to be found in the Western democratic world."

Conditions in the detention centres  

In the subsequent year after the policy was enacted, Howard’s Government faced numerous accusations of abuse in the detention centres. Following a hunger strike in one of the facilities, a member of the Government’s own immigration advisory group stated that "dispossession, separation, isolation, trauma, complete lack of power over your lives and a lack of judicial redress” all exist inside the detention centres. Since then, an uneasy political consensus has built around the issue, with the Australian Labor Party - which was in power from 2007 to 2013 - initially reviewing the practice, only to reinstitute it when there was a significant increase in the number of asylum applicants travelling to Australia.

Last year, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled that the detention centres in its territory are illegal since they breach the right to personal liberty allowed in the country’s constitution. Despite this ruling, Australia has continued to use Manus Island as a ‘processing site’. However, the Australian Government has allowed just 18 asylum applicants to be processed and admitted into Australia in 2016. This follows Kevin Rudd’s - the former Labor Prime Minister of Australia - announcement that the asylum applicants would be granted no way of attaining Australian residency, which has led to hundreds of asylum applicants languishing in these detention centres.

The conditions in the centres, which are operated by security firm G4S, have been condemned by a number of human rights groups. In a leaked cache of incident reports from the detention centres, it was revealed that of the 2116 reports filed, just over half of incidents related to children. These included alleged incidents of private security guards granting small favours such as an extra two minutes in the shower in return for sexual acts, child sexual abuse, enabling of self-harm, and beatings. Detainees have reported suspicious deaths in the camps, including one man whose body was found at the bottom of a cliff, and guards have been accused of causing such intense mental trauma that many detainees take their own lives. Last year, an Iranian asylum seeker set himself on fire in one of the camps.


In 2016, the Australian Government completed a one-off refugee resettlement deal with the US. Under the deal, the migrants held on Manus and Nauru islands will be assessed and the most vulnerable will be resettled in the US. This is expected to free up considerable space in Australia’s detention centres, and therefore allow the Pacific solution to continue. Abuses have generally been put down to overcrowding and ethnic tensions between refugees yet to be settled or deemed eligible. While the Labor Party, the current opposition, have made promises to speed up processing, take in more refugees, and allow independent oversight of the facilities, they have stopped short of calling for a radical overhaul of the current policy, which human rights groups claim is needed.

Neil Reilly is a research assistant at Bright Blue