Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.
The roughly 800 refugees seeking asylum in Australia who have been patiently awaiting a response from Canberra in primitive detention centers on Manus Island (some for up to three years now), have just been told by Papua New Guinean authorities to pack up and get out.
The Papuan government has informed the men that their current abodes will be demolished by the end of June.
The asylum seekers have been given three options: to relocate to an equally rustic transit center near the Papua New Guinea’s main town of Lorengau, to relocate to an even more primitive transit center in Micronesia, or to return to their country of origin.
Oh, but there is one silver lining for the refugees.
The Australian government has decided to sweeten the deal by offering to fork up a hefty $20,000 in cash for any refugees who willingly opt to return to the countries they are trying to flee, just so long as they are out of New Guinea by the end of August.
The trouble is that most of these refugees left their respective countries because their lives were in mortal danger, so $20,000 or not, they are not very likely to choose the option to return to their homeland anytime soon.
This leaves them with the option to either continue their potentially eternal interim in New Guinea or to wait it out in Micronesia.
A lucky few of the refugees might receive asylum in the United States under a recent resettlement accord with United States, but the details of that agreement are yet to be ironed out and the qualifications for the migrants are yet to be determined.
Those who do not qualify will remain in the legal limbo of Australia’s labyrinthine refugee processing program.
Australia does not allow refugees or asylum-seekers arriving by boat directly into the country.
Anyone who is caught trying to enter Australia by water is sent to a refugee processing center either in New Guinea or Micronesia, where, theoretically, their asylum request is studied and determined by a special review board back in Australia.
But this is where the process is transformed into a Kafkaesque nightmare that borders on Inquisitional terror abuse tactics.
These migrants are essentially kept in open-air prisons, caged behind barbed wire in primitive tents where they are subjected to a barrage of beatings, psychological abuse and other forms of torture.
Once documented, they are forbidden from leaving the detention centers, even after Australia has officially granted them refugee status, since the review of their status must then be vetted and re-vetted.
Many of these desperate refugees have been caught in a bleak bureaucratic limbo for years.
In a recent report on the centers, Amnesty International stated that the offshore processing regime was “explicitly designed to inflict incalculable damage on hundreds of women, men and children” as a deterrent for others seeking asylum in Australia, a palpable warning that if you come, you will inevitably face social isolation and torture on a remote place from which you may never leave (i.e., don’t come).
Medical care provided by the Australian for the migrants is so rudimentary that the refugees and asylum-seekers are denied treatment for even the most basic physical ailments, including serious heart and kidney conditions, complications from diabetes, gynecological and urological problems, and infections and skin diseases.
In the few cases when their health conditions are deemed “serious” by Canberra authorities, they are flown to a hospital in Australia for treatment and then immediately returned to the detention centers once they have been medically discharged.
Tensions between the refugees and local New Guineans and Micronesians run high, and cultural confrontations between the two groups frequently turn violent.
Amnesty International reported numerous cases of refugee children being threatened with machetes for daring to try to attend local schools.
Last year, two of the Micronesian refugees set themselves on fire in desperation. One of them died.
Meanwhile, authorities in Canberra are kept abreast of the increasingly combustible situation in the camps, but continue to turn a blind eye to these odious abuses and blatant violations of basic human rights.
Australia’s so-called “Stop the Boats” policy, officially implemented in 2014, but in de facto practice from long before, has even been promoted publically abroad with the uninviting slogan of: “If you come to Australia illegally by boat, there is no way you will ever make Australia home.”
The refugees at issue are mostly men from predominately Muslim nations, including Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Somalia.
But there are also many women and children caught in the refugee snare.
Last May, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said that prolonged detention of the detainees was “immensely harmful” to the asylum-seekers and called for all the refugees to be moved and treated humanely.
Asked about the closure of the Papuan processing center, one Australian immigration official commented that it was “a good thing” for the migrants.
“The closure of the regional processing center is an opportunity [for them] to get on with their lives,” he said.
Of course, that would be true if they had a life to get on with.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.