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‘I heart Nauru,’ a sculpture by Penny Bryne, made for the 2018 ‘All We Can’t See” exhibition in Sydney

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History of Australia’s offshore detention camps makes me sickened by my country

Christmas Island is a pristine pocket of land in the Indian Ocean, just below Java, where you will find crystal clear waters, beautiful stretches of white sand beaches, heavenly weather and a long history of human rights violations related to Australia’s heavy use of offshore detention facilities in the 1990s and early 21st century.

In 1992, the ‘Migration Reform Act’ was introduced by Paul Keating’s Labor Party government.

It was the first legislation article that mandated offshore detention for anyone entering or residing in Australia without a valid visa and extended the previous 273-day detention limit to an indefinite period. It became operational in 1994 as part of the Government’s attempts to prevent asylum seekers from reaching Australia.

In 2001, the ‘Pacific Solution’ policy followed, supported by a wide coalition of political parties. Despite the headline, it did not solve Australia’s perceived migration problems – the ‘solution’ was to move asylum seekers from detention centres in the Pacific Ocean to detention centres in the south-west Pacific Ocean, not allowing them residency on Australia’s mainland.

In 2010, another Labor Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, spoke at the Lowy Institute. “[A]t the current rate of arrivals, it would take about twenty years to fill [a cricket ground] with [unauthorised migrants],” she stated, acknowledging that Australia was not facing a crisis and that each asylum seeker could be treated with the respect and dignity mandated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Acknowledging there was no reason for the imprisonment of thousands of refugees.

In 2011, the next Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, announced that asylum seekers arriving ‘illegally’ would be detained on Manus Island without the possibility of ever reaching the mainland.

Asylum seekers are fleeing from persecution, economic volatility, violence, political instability, and violations of basic human rights. They cannot go anywhere – just elsewhere – and are rarely able to return to their homeland.

Effectively, PM Rudd announced that people whose only crime was to try to find a safe place could be imprisoned for life without the possibility of parole.

Australia’s hostile attitude towards refugees did not stop at keeping them out of the mainland. It continued within the detention centres, where asylum seekers suffered inhumane treatment, deteriorating mental health and forced repatriation.

2014 saw the publication of ‘Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention’, a 324-page report from the Australian Human Rights Commission. It discussed the effects of offshore detention on children living in Nauru, Christmas Island and Manus Island – and documented hundreds of human rights violations.

Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated how “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The report in question outlined how “data from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection describes numerous incidents of assault, sexual assault and self-harm in detention environments.”

Article 9: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” The report: “The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights also suggests … that Australia’s policy of offshore processing and boat turn backs is ‘leading to a chain of human rights violations, including arbitrary detention and possible torture following return to home countries’.”

Article 15: “Everyone has the right to a nationality.” ‘Forgotten Children’: “At least 12 children born in immigration detention are stateless, and may be denied their right to nationality and protection”.

Article 26: “Everyone has the right to education.” The report: “The failure of the Commonwealth to provide education to school-aged children on Christmas Island between July 2013 and July 2014 is a breach of the right to education.”

Ministers at the time also acknowledged that the prolonged detention of children does not reduce the number of illegal immigrants arriving in Australia – and thus acknowledged there was no reason for the imprisonment of hundreds of refugee children.

Around 2,000 documents, known as The Nauru Files, were published by The Guardian on August 10, 2016.

The files, leaked to the newspaper, consist of refugees and staff detailing the appalling conditions at the Nauru Detention Centre.

It reiterated many of the points of the 2014 report, but now in the heartbreaking voices of the detained children. Instead of an inaccessible official report, these were – and still are – available on The Guardian.

Welcome to paradise. Each incident is laid out on a calendar, colour-coded by their criticality. Those of the least concern are yellow, like a child who had been separated from his mother for eight months, a kid who asked for poison and the one who told an adult he wanted to die quickly and painlessly.

A woman refused to take her medication, having watched people fake mental health complications to be transported to Australia.

There were cockroaches in the tent. Children climbed over phone booths to hand USB drives over to others, who would download things off the internet for them.

A guard made a comment that led a woman to throw her inhalers away, so she would suffocate in the case of an asthma attack.

A person who had not eaten for three weeks and was unable to get out of bed.

A child, when late, was unable to attend school for the whole day. Another kid, in maths class, asked friends: “Do I have to kill myself to go to Australia?”

A guard hit a boy’s head against the ground twice, grabbed him around the throat and then threw a chair at the child.

Read more:

The lives of asylum seekers in detention detailed in a unique database

The devastating trauma and abuse inflicted in Australia’s notorious offshore detention camps is laid bare in the largest cache of leaked documents released from inside its immigration regime.

by The Guardian

The Nauru files revealed one of Australia’s most grave human rights violations, a policy resulting in thousands of cases of abuse of children and adults – including voluntary starvation in protests and actual self-harm.

The leak peeled back the surface of what is officially named The Nauru Regional Processing Centre to show that it is a prison where hopelessness causes children to commit suicide in a desperate attempt to reach the mainland, and where the politicians benefit from donations by campaigning under anti-immigration banners.

In 2018, there was a wave of support for refugees in detention centres on Manus Island, Christmas Island and Papua New Guinea.

Thousands of people nationwide protested the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, making headlines in The New York Times, The Guardian and the BBC.

It is disappointing that it took so many years to mobilise people to action but even more disappointing that the government still refused to change the policy, maintaining that forbidding innocent people from entering the country and depriving them of fundamental human rights disincentive illegal immigration.

For a brief movement, Canberra allowed some children to enter the mainland to seek medical treatment and consented to the settlement of a few hundred people in the United States.

Still, the Australian authorities rejected New Zealand’s offer, under which refugees from Nauru would be resettled there – Australia feared that would result in attempts to reach Australia through a ‘backdoor’.

Manus Island was closed in 2017, after several years of turmoil, the centre was ruled unlawful and Australia was forced to pay AU$70 million (about US$52.75 million) to the affected refugees. Papua New Guinea, while trying to pull out of the deal with Australia, accepted 3,172 refugees and asylum seekers Australia forcibly transferred to facilities.

Learn more:

Australia’s offshore processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and PNG: a quick guide to statistics and resources

In 2021, the Australian government closed the detention facility in Papua New Guinea, and Nauru was closed earlier that year.

But there are still a dozen or so Alternative Places of Detention (APODs), which are scattered across Australia.

They recently came under scrutiny for alleged attempts to limit the freedom of movement of refugees, but the media largely did not follow.

Why, for decades, one government after another kept the detention centres open, even long after they had been proven to be ineffective, and repeated an unfunded claim that offshore detention was supposed to limit human trafficking and smuggling rings?

It is time Australia reflected on the abuse of human rights it inflicted and understood the reasons underlying its hostility.

Asylum seekers are not the first – Australia has repeatedly mistreated immigrants and there is a common denominator between various groups of newcomers who faced Australian hostility. This common denominator is racism.

South Sudanese refugees have been subject to high incarceration rates, online harassment, racial slurs, and bullying in schools. Arab Australians were violently abused after September 11. East Asians were targeted following the COVID-19 pandemic in a similar way the Vietnamese immigrants arriving after the Vietnam War were discriminated against by entire sections of society that decried ‘the Asian invasion’.

It all directs to the ‘The Immigration Restriction Act 1901’ also commonly known as the ‘White Australia’ policy that encapsulated this overwhelming desire to exclude in order to make Australia ‘pure’.

Even after a century, it still reverberates in the nation’s treatment of refugees and migrants. In reality, we are far from the diverse, accepting, multicultural society students are taught about. We have an intensely xenophobic history we can no longer deny and hide behind ‘security’ and ‘disincentivising human trafficking’.

We should be ashamed of ourselves and confront our violations of human rights. I am sickened by my country.

Written by:


Tanya Chi


Sydney, Australia

Born in 2007 in Shanghai, Tanya moved to Australia when she was 1 year-old. She advocates for environmental sustainability and volunteers with Hysteria, a student-run literary magazine, as its Chief Graphic Designer.

She loves Model United Nations and is very active in UN Youth activities in Australia, including Negotiations and the Evatt Cup. Currently, she is studying Agriculture, Latin and History as her electives and is thoroughly enjoying learning about the Ottoman Empire, subjunctive clauses, and how dairy farms operate.

Tanya enjoys designing posters in her spare time, watching video essays on how Tumblr’s unique format affects its user base and reading about heavy metal contamination in waterways.

Tanya joined Harbingers’ Magazine in the autumn of 2023, after she won the 2nd prize in The Harbinger Prize 2023 Essay on Humanities category.

She speaks English, Mandarin and Shanghai Dialect.

human rights

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