News

The Manus Island detention centre may be closing, but its legacy lives on in Europe, where leaders have looked to Australia for lessons on how to stop the boats – no matter the human cost. By Max Opray.

Exporting Australia’s offshore detention policy

Afghan asylum seeker Sayid on the island of Samos.
Credit: MAX OPRAY

They took Sayid away in a yellow Corolla. It was late 2015, and the 26-year-old IT support worker was returning home from his job at the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan when he was abducted off the street by Taliban militants. With a knife they extracted promises from Sayid to help them hack the electoral system, before dumping him bloodied, bound and hooded on the outskirts of Kabul.

“They said to me, ‘If you want to be alive, help us to clean the country of foreigners,’ ” he tells The Saturday Paper.

“So I said I will help. They copied all the contact details from my phone, told me, ‘We are going to call you and give an address, so you can come and tell us what systems you are using, what firewall you are doing.’ I was really badly afraid – it was the most dangerous thing in my life.”

Sayid did not honour his promise. He fled for Pakistan, a country he’d first claimed asylum in at the age of two, when his family escaped along “a road filled with bodies and blood” from intertribal conflict in Kabul.

This time round the Pakistanis were not so welcoming – the police imprisoned Sayid for a month in order to extort a bribe out of his relatives back home.

Once free, Sayid looked further afield. Friends and family had tried for Australia, only to be left stranded in Indonesia for years on account of the repulsive power of a three-word slogan.

Others who had gone to Europe told him they were welcomed there, so Sayid opted to take his chances on the Mediterranean rather than the Timor sea.

In October 2016 he boarded a rubber dinghy crammed with more than 40 other asylum seekers, before pushing off the Turkish coast into the wild black waves of the Mediterranean night, hoping the darkness would help them evade the boat patrols that would turn them back.

They got lost and phoned the Greek police for assistance, only to be told to go back where they’d come from.

“It was the first time in my life I saw a sea,” Sayid says.

“I told myself: ‘Sayid, you just paid money to kill yourself.’ ”

In 2016 more than 5000 asylum seekers did indeed pay to drown in the Mediterranean, compared with about 360,000 who successfully made it to a European Union country by boat – a number that dwarfs Australia’s high-water mark of about 20,000 sea arrivals in 2013.

In the end Sayid and his fellow travellers were some of the lucky ones, washing up on the shores of Samos island, Greece. Sayid was to find out, however, that the EU was no longer the place into which his friends had been welcomed. As Australia washed its hands of the largest global refugee crisis since World War II, Europe had been watching and learning.

The boat turnbacks Sayid attempted to avoid are but one part of the Australian-style approach transplanted to Europe – also rolled out are people-swap arrangements such as the EU–Turkey deal, and a regime of mandatory detention in island camps overseen by guards who torment detainees into agreeing to self-deportation.

Sayid’s relief at arriving safely was short-lived, as he shivered through winter in a tent at the base of Samos’s detention camp – at the time holding nearly twice its official capacity of 800 inmates.

After 25 days of mandatory detention he was allowed in theory to make visits to the town of Vathy adjacent to the camp, but the reality was a little different.

“Still even now if the police see us, they order us back to the camp,” he says. “The way they look at us – we know how they look at us. Like we are not a human.”

After six months he upgraded to a two-metre by 2.5-metre steel container, sleeping on the cold metal floor with four other Afghans, occasionally woken by dawn raids from police rounding up those marked for deportation to Turkey and beyond. He has been here nine months.

The month before Sayid arrived, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was in Europe meeting with the likes of Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s interior minister, and the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson – who returned the favour by meeting again with Bishop during his visit to Australia this week. Both European politicians went public afterwards with proposals for tougher EU asylum processes – Bishop herself noted that de Maizière quizzed her extensively about Australia’s border protection system.

In November 2016 the European Parliamentary Research Service provided EU politicians with an updated briefing on what it described as Australia’s “highly effective” policy of mandatory offshore detention, although it noted that from a “practical point of view” such an approach could breach the European Convention on Human Rights.

Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz is one of the many right-wing continental politicians to have called for the EU to emulate Australia, telling Die Presse last year: “The Australian model of course cannot be completely replicated, but its principles can be applied in Europe.”

On the Greek islands, a crude workaround of the European Convention on Human Rights has been realised in the form of broad administrative detention laws that grant police the power to detain asylum seekers deemed to pose a risk to security for up to three months without trial.

Multiple asylum seekers and non-government organisation workers have told The Saturday Paper that police pressure detainees to agree to initiate the process of self-deportation in order to secure freedom from the cell.

In at least one case on Samos, the three-month limit was breached. In late 2016 Syrian nurse Farid, fed up with waiting on the island, tried to board a ferry for the Greek mainland. A police officer stopped him from leaving and – according to Farid’s account – hit him. Farid struck back, and found himself detained in a place even worse than the camp: the notorious cell in the bowels of Vathy police station.

For four months Farid was detained in a dim room without trial, sharing scabies-ridden blankets and a single exposed toilet with between 30 and 50 other detained asylum seekers at any one time. He was not given a mattress to sleep on, and was never granted access to fresh air or sunlight.

Finally released four months later, Farid has been moved to the mainland, where he awaits the outcome of his asylum application.

Asylum seekers tell of police officers trying to provoke a reaction to use as a pretext for arrest, such as stamping on their feet, hurling racially charged abuse, or beating them with batons – even being caught self-harming is cause for detainment. Investigations by the Greek ombudsman are usually abandoned as witnesses are not offered anonymity, and even those that proceed result only in a recommendation that the island’s police investigate themselves.

Australia and the EU are not alone in attempting to seal themselves off from the refugee crisis.

A 2016 Overseas Development Institute (ODI) study found that Australia and Europe had directly inspired middle-and low-income countries to take a more restrictive approach to asylum seekers, citing the case studies of Jordan, Indonesia and Kenya.

ODI managing director Sara Pantuliano said: “We are seeing a worrying race to the bottom on refugee protection around the world.”

On July 12 the United States government under President Donald Trump went lower still, officially suspending its entire refugee resettlement program, save for applicants with existing connections to the US.

Back on Samos, detainees in the police station found a way to at least get some access to fresh air. In late June, an Algerian set fire to his blanket, forcing the evacuation of the building. Detainees were sent to the hospital for treatment for smoke inhalation, before being moved into an equally crowded cell at the port police station. This space at least featured barred windows looking out over Vathy bay. At all hours of the day, the silhouettes of detainees can be seen gazing out at the water.

On the front landing of the station, a bored police officer stands around idly. He has a question about Australia: “Are so many Muslims coming there, too?”

On being told not as many, he voices his approval: “So, it is clean then.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 5, 2017 as "Exporting offshore detention". Subscribe here.

Max Opray
is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist.