Last week the first refugees from Nauru and Papua New Guinea departed to start a new life in the United States. After more than four years spent in limbo, in harsh and punitive conditions, those who sought Australia’s protection will finally find the chance to rebuild their lives elsewhere in safety and with dignity.
They leave behind a harrowing chapter of immense and avoidable suffering. Families have been separated, children have gone years without schooling, and human beings have been physically and psychologically damaged. For those who feel abandoned, as they see the Australian government seeking to walk away from those it has consigned to such harm, the sense of hopelessness is acute.
The consequences of open-ended mandatory detention, inadequate conditions and indefinite limbo, are devastating, yet predictable. For years now, UNHCR and others have highlighted the overwhelmingly negative toll on human lives, while the policy grinds on.
While many of the refugees on Papua New Guinea and Nauru will, hopefully, find a solution in the US, it is time to bring an end to this saga for the rest. The best solution, especially for those with close family ties, is to bring the recognised refugees to Australia, where people can receive proper medical and psychological care, and start to repair and rebuild their lives.
The personal face of the policy of “offshore processing” has been largely hidden from public view, but behind each of these untold individual stories is a personal and genuine tragedy.
During my first visits to the Nauru “regional processing centre” in 2014, I knelt down to speak with a six year-old girl. Asking her name, I was disturbed when she answered with a boat number, “EZB037.” Believing she misheard, I asked again, only to hear the same letters and number repeated. We can only imagine what brings a young girl to replace her name with an identification number.