Reopening Nauru

The disclosure contained fewer syllables than the number of people trapped within it. The line was as short and unwilling as a secret: “There are currently 13 on Nauru.”

Speaking at Senate estimates, Michael Thomas, a first assistant secretary in the Department of Home Affairs, explained that 11 of those people arrived last month. “Those new arrivals were taken to Nauru in September this year.”

Thomas would not say where the people were from. He refused to say if any of them were children. “Just to characterise where the process is at: the group, at the moment, are going through the initial reception processes, which include identity, immigration, health and quarantine processes, managed by the government of Nauru.”

There was less detail than even the Coalition offered during its last term. The people involved have no nationality, no gender, no age. They are faceless, a non-people invented by this dreadful system.

“At this stage,” Thomas said, “providing more detailed information on the cohort may have implications for our international relations with Nauru and for individual safety and privacy issues as well. So I’d like to take that question on notice so we can provide you with as much detail on the cohort as is possible and appropriate, considering those factors.”

In the same hearings, it became clear an unknown number of people had been brought to Australia from Nauru and “detained as unlawful non-citizens”. They are locked up somewhere, with the government unable to say why.

“To be released into the community requires ministerial intervention to either grant them a visa or place them into residence determination,” Thomas said, “so a risk assessment process is undertaken at that point to make a determination about the best placement for them.”

Labor promised this brutality during the campaign. It long ago abandoned the humanity of refugees. One of the Albanese government’s first acts in office was a boat turnback.

In the past, politicians spoke of deterrence. They pretended these terrible decisions were made to prevent worse ones. They presented a false choice between torture and drowning.

The argument has always been strained, a sly justification of the country’s darkest impulses. It is even less credible when the torture is done in secret. The whole point of deterrence is that it is conspicuous. Without that, it is only cruelty.

The politics of this is simple. Labor continues the perversion so the Coalition cannot accuse it of ending the perversion. It is a kind of moral spiral. James Paterson, the shadow minister for Home Affairs, could scarcely contain his excitement. “Once again Minister [Clare] O’Neil and Labor have shown that they can’t be trusted to keep our borders safe,” he said in a statement, adding: “Only the Coalition can be trusted to keep our borders safe.”

The reopening of Nauru is the reopening of one of this country’s saddest wounds. It is a reminder neither Labor nor the Coalition has any real plan for refugees. All they have is a numb agreement to keep doing what they have spent the past few decades doing, trading lives for the narrowest of electoral gains.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "Reopening Nauru".

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