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Correspondent Thursday, 26 September, 2002, 09:50 GMT 10:50 UK
Australia's Pacific Solution
Refugee's boat
Sarah Macdonald

In September 2001, the Australian Government hatched an extreme response to 400 asylum seekers rescued from the Indian Ocean - they called it their "Pacific Solution".

The Afghanis on board the now infamous Norwegian cargo ship The Tampa, claimed to be fleeing not only the Taleban but centuries of religious persecution.

Refugees boat
The Australian Navy ensure refugees keep their distance
People smugglers had promised them a new life in Australia, in return for thousands of dollars.

But instead of a new life, Australia effectively sold them to the near-bankrupt island of Nauru, thousands of miles away into the middle of the Pacific.

In return, Australia paid Nauru $30 million.

Amnesty International was allowed a one-off visit to Nauru before the island was effectively "shut down".

They claim Australia has become an extension of the human smuggling process.

John Pace - Amnesty International
John Pace: "Nauru has improved people smuggling"
John Pace, author of the Amnesty report on Nauru says: "Rather than put a stop to people trafficking, it improved people smuggling. The Australian navy was added on at the end of the chain of transportation in order to divert these groups to other countries using Australian naval transportation.

"This renders the function of the navy equivalent to the Indonesian fishermen and the smugglers who engaged those fishermen."

A closed island

Map of the area
No journalists or lawyers are allowed on Nauru. Consequently the treatment of those asylum seekers remained a mystery - until now.

With secret cameras, Correspondent managed to get inside the camps where the Tampa asylum seekers have been locked up for nearly a year.

The physical conditions are harsh, but not extreme.

In some cases, they are actually better off than the Nauruan's who suffer power black outs and water cuts upwards of three times a day.

Australia's money has paid for a generator and desalination plant for its Pacific captors.


Refugee child
The face of despair and bewilderment
They were told they would be on the island for a few weeks while their claims for asylum were determined. They were then to be freed.

The hospital is filling up with asylum seekers "going out of their minds" not knowing their future.

One person has tried to kill himself and there has been a riot.

Most have had their refugee claims rejected and even those granted asylum remain in limbo behind the wire while Australia scours the world for another country to take them.

Vote winner

A sinking refugees's boat
The refugees' rickety boats do not always last the course
It was election time in Australia. It saw the Conservatives fight their campaign around the refugee issue.

The Pacific Solution seemed the perfect way to win votes.

The Government spent $0.5 bn on warships and spy planes to sweep their coastal waters for immigrants

If the fragile Indonesian fishing boats, overloaded with Afghan and Iraqi men, women and children couldn't be turned back out to sea, they would be off-loaded onto the new detention camps on Nauru.

High stakes on both sides

The boat people would sometimes sabotage their vessels to prevent the Australian navy returning them to Indonesia.

And the navy was increasingly accused of brutal behaviour towards the asylum seekers.

In a letter given to Correspondent, a group of asylum seekers held in Australian waters for 11 days by the navy, claim they were beaten with electric cattle prods.

Topside Camp
Topside Camp - the refugee's living hell
One detainee said that they were handcuffed, laid on their faces and beaten with electrical truncheons.

John Pace from Amnesty International heard the same claims.

Human rights breach?

However, the Australian Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock emphatically denies any wrongdoing on behalf of the navy.

Philip Ruddock, Australian Minister for Immigration
Philip Ruddock, Australian Minister for Immigration, blithely defends the government's position
He says: "There is no such product as an electric cattle prod in the hands of our service men and women. I think what you were receiving were stories embellished for their own purposes.

"If no such product exists and you take it seriously you have to ask yourself what was the purpose of the comments being made."

Human Rights Watch has released a briefing paper accusing Australia of being on an 'aggressive mission to muster international support for the Pacific Solution' which it condemns as a "violation of the Refugee Convention."

The paper states: "Australia's current refugee policies raise serious human rights concerns, including the use of interception and detention of asylum seekers at sea under 'inhuman and degrading' conditions. This sets a poor example for all coastal states, and is particularly dangerous at a time when Greece and Italy will hold the next two EU presidencies".

Mr Ruddock claims the Pacific Solution has been hugely successful. Not one boat has embarked towards Australia's shores this year.

The human cost remains

Thousands of asylum seekers remain imprisoned on off-shore detention camps, and four hundred men, women and children drowned when those boats sunk into the seas while trying to reach Australia.

Australia's Pacific Solution: Sunday 29 September 2002 on BBC Two at 1845 BST

Reporter: Sarah Macdonald
Editor: Karen O'Connor
Deputy Editor: David Belton
Online Producer: Andrew Jeffrey

Sarah Macdonald
Australia's Pacific Solution
Philip Ruddock, Australian Minister for Immigration
"Ive been a long standing member of Amnesty International"
Philip Ruddock
"We're not going to allow criticism about the way we treat people..."
John Pace - Amnesty International
"These so-called camps were really detention centres"
Refugees boat
A refugee boat is turned back to Indonesia
Australia's Pacific Solution

Australia's Pacific Solution
See also:

27 Sep 02 | Asia-Pacific
26 Sep 02 | Asia-Pacific
21 Jul 02 | Asia-Pacific
13 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
10 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
08 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
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