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Australia brings its last refugee on the Pacific island of Nauru to its mainland

The Nibok refugee settlement is seen on Nauru on Sept. 4, 2018.
Jason Oxenham
The Nibok refugee settlement is seen on Nauru on Sept. 4, 2018.

MANILA, Philippines – The Australian government has evacuated the last refugee it was holding on Nauru, ushering in the end of its 11-year controversial off-shore detention processing policy on that Pacific island nation.

The man was flown into Australia late Saturday night, according to a statement by the Melbourne-based Asylum Seeker Resource Center, which, like many other groups like it, welcomes the "long overdue move."

However, there is still cause for concern, says Ian Rintoul with the Refugee Action Coalition, as the Australian government will continue to keep its facilities on Nauru open.

"We know many people who have been damaged, both mentally and physically, by their incarceration in offshore detention," Rintoul told NPR. "So as much as we welcome the news that the last refugee has been brought off Nauru to Australia, we are still arguing very strenuously for a complete end to offshore detention."

In a statement emailed to NPR, the Australian Department of Home Affairs said Nauru "remains ready to receive and process any new unauthorized maritime arrivals, future-proofing Australia's response to maritime people smuggling."

The Labour government, which announced earlier this month that it would be moving refugees off of Nauru, has confirmed to local media that it will pay $350 million annually to keep the facility on Nauru open and has hired Management and Training, a U.S. company based in Utah, that runs private prisons, to manage it.

"There is no change to Australia's policies," reads the statement. "People who attempt to travel to Australia by boat without a valid Australian visa have zero chance of settling in Australia."

Australia restarted its offshore detention program on Nauru in 2012 in an effort to stop a surge of people attempting to arrive in Australia via boat seeking asylum. The island nation is more than 2,000 miles northeast of Australia. Most of these arrivals are political refugees from far-off places such as Pakistan, Iraq and Iran.

At the time, the move was meant to introduce a more collaborative, comprehensive regional policy for processing asylum claims, according to Madeline Gleeson, senior research fellow at the Kaldor Center for International Refugee Law at UNSW.

"But what came to pass was very different... the real issues addressing the root causes of displacement and providing safe pathways to protection for those who need it remain unresolved," Gleeson told The Guardian.

Indeed, the policy did not stop the boats and it didn't take long for Australia's offshore processing centers — also located on Christmas Island and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island — were overrun. And before anyone knew it, asylum seekers were spending years in detention with no end in sight.

In 2014, Peter Dutton, Australia's then-Immigration minister defended the policy to NPR saying that the country will only take people "in an orderly way."

"The United Nations points out that Australia is one of the leading countries in the world in terms of the amount of assistance we provide to refugees," Dutton told Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep. "We want people to lead a dignified existence. But we've said we are not going to settle people under that situation."

According to the Refugee Council of Australia, 4,183 have been sent offshore since 2012. Refugee groups say that at least 14 people have died in offshore detention in the last decade, many from treatable illnesses. Over the years, there have also been multiple reports from advocacy groups of bad conditions at the centers, as well as of violent assaults and sexual violence against detainees – including children.

Even though Nauru has been cleared of refugees, advocacy groups say about 80 people attempting to reach Australia still remain in offshore detention in Papua New Guinea and need urgent evacuation.

"I think the people who created this tragedy they should hold them accountable because they damaged many people, they damaged and destroyed many families, they separated so many families for many years," Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian journalist who spent six years in detention on Manus Island after fleeing his home in Iran, says.

Boochani, who is known for winning a literary prize for writing a book about his detention using only WhatsApp, says there should be an international court case where the Australian policy makers who came up with the offshore detention policy are tried, or they should at least compensate the detainees and the families.

"They should answer for what they've done," he says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.
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