Detention disgrace

For as long as the camps were running, nothing else mattered. Regimes were propped up. Corrupt businessmen were paid. The rule of law was debased. Countries were left to teeter into bankruptcy.

This was Australia’s calculation: whatever happens in Papua New Guinea or Nauru is fine, so long as they continue to keep our secrets, so long as they agree to keep storing our refugees.

Both countries became less democratic in the time they ran Australia’s detention centres. Both saw corruption flourish and mismanagement go unchecked. Australia knew this and did nothing. In some cases, the government encouraged it.

It is in this context that Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, James Marape, addressed Australia’s parliament this week. He is the first Pacific leader to do so.

“These have all been our challenges, but as I visit you today, I ask you – do not give up on Papua New Guinea,” he said.

“We have always bounced back from our low moments and we will continue to grow, learning from every low moments and every high moments.”

Marape described Papua New Guinea as a nation that borrows every year to survive. For more than a decade, Australia was perfectly happy with this arrangement. It had no real interest in Papua New Guinea’s development, only in its willingness to lock up a few hundred men who had tried to reach here by boat.

“We must become a strong country standing on our own two feet,” Marape said, “economically independent and strong, so we too can help Australia maintain democracy, preserve peace and ensure stability in our part of planet Earth, in our Pacific.”

This matters to the government only because of its fear of China. News that a security pact had been proposed rattled Canberra. Similarly, greater security ties were offered to Nauru last month, after the country changed its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.

Until then, for years, Australia treated both countries like client states. The only focus was on detention, on the morally corrupt use of their territory to punish refugees.

This is the second legacy of offshore detention. Not only were lives destroyed in these camps but whole countries were allowed to fail in exchange for their willingness to do this work. No thought was given to the people living there. Nothing was done for the region or its stability.

As Marape spoke this week, there were still dozens of asylum seekers living in Port Moresby. They have also been abandoned by this system. They receive no support. Australia refuses to settle them and Papua New Guinea has no place to send them.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2024 as "Detention disgrace".

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