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'Frankenstein' asylum regime turns six



I arrived on Manus Island in early December 2012. I had a background in youth work, and was fresh from writing an honours thesis on Australian immigration detention. I came to the newly reopened centre to work for a subcontractor of the then Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

Closeup of a sad looking bearded man. Photo by Bojanikus via GettyDuring the time I worked there, I witnessed a palpable reduction in the mental health of the men with whom I worked. The centre at the time was a restricted tent city of tropical downpours, mud and mosquitos. Even during those brief six months, I saw a group of healthy, good-humoured men reduced to shadows.

When I arrived on Manus, Julia Gillard was prime minister. By the middle of the following year, she would be replaced by Kevin Rudd, who, mere weeks later, would announce that those who arrived by boat would never be resettled in Australia. This Friday 19 July marks the sixth anniversary of that announcement.

On this anniversary we must remember, protest and mourn the terrible toll on human life incurred by six years of offshore processing. But we must protest, too, the Frankenstein of mechanisms through which this has all been enacted.

Our offshore calamity has now included multiple Australian governments (four prime ministers and various ministers-in-charge), the governments of PNG and Nauru, the Department of Home Affairs and its prior iterations, the Australian and PNG navies and armies, and various departments of the PNG police force.

Perhaps most tellingly, there has also been a high turnover of subcontractors, including multiple non-profit NGOs and multinational corporations, as well as Australian, Nauruan and PNG-based businesses.

The Australian government departments and ministers responsible have failed to manage not only their own actions, but also the actions of these numerous subcontractors, with alarming consistency and tragic consequences. The humanitarian failure of this regime is concisely exemplified by the 12 young men who have died over these past six years, including one that the Queensland coroner found was preventable.


"Both citizens and non-citizens will continue to bear the brunt of this erosion of good governance, as government makes policy decisions and then fails to manage the companies to which it farms out its responsibilities."


It is reflected, too, in the successful (settled) class action to the tune of $70 million in 2017 that was brought against the Australian government by 1905 detainees 'for illegally detaining them in dangerous and damaging conditions'.

Not only have our government and its subcontractors failed to run these facilities humanely or economically, we have at the same time failed to deliver appropriate settlement outcomes for the majority of those found to be refugees. Over the past six years, various governments have pursued or arranged, and in some cases avoided, international arrangements to deal with those transferred offshore in this Australian-made tragedy.

The $55.5 million Cambodian deal saw seven people resettled, and the relatively more successful (and current) US deal has seen approximately 580 refugees resettled there. The debated, yet still not taken up, New Zealand offer to resettle 150 per year remains on the table, many years after the original offer.

Over 1246 people have been transferred back over the past six years to Australia for medical reasons. This, however, is not for resettlement; subsequent governments have remained true to Rudd's promise that none should be resettled in Australia; although onshore, their futures remain uncertain.

None of this is news to the Australian public. The historical and contemporary situation on PNG and Nauru have been well documented by activists, advocates, international NGOs, UN departments and mainstream media.

Why we continue forcing this suffering upon people when there is a range of effective and reasonable policy options at the government's disposal that could, overnight, allow these people to begin rebuilding their lives and health raises many questions about our governing bodies and society at large.

The ongoing treatment of this relatively small number of non-citizens at the hands of those who have governed our country over the past six years is more than a shame, a disgrace, or something that we can say 'not in our name' to.

We cannot just critique the original offshore policy and call for resettlement. We must also recognise the monstrous results of this Frankenstein of offshore subcontracted service provision, which is indicative of a broader change in how government both governs and operationalises its policy commitments.

As things stand, both citizens and non-citizens will continue to bear the brunt of this erosion of good governance, as government makes policy decisions and then fails to manage the companies to which it farms out its responsibilities.



Josh Lourensz is a board member of the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project and coordinates the Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum (CAPSA).

Main image by Bojanikus via Getty

Topic tags: Joshua Lourensz, Manus Island, asylum seekers, refugees



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Existing comments

I urge readers to continue to engage in political advocacy with both the Australian Government and Opposition on behalf of the approximately 800 innocent refugees they have abandoned, in our name, on Manus Island, PNG, and Nauru. Many of our politicians have 'blood on their hands' over their callous, inhumane treatment of these desperate people who came to us for help, and we have 'blood on our hands' too if we fail to do all we can to help them.

Grant Allen | 18 July 2019  

“But we must protest, too, the Frankenstein of mechanisms through which this has all been enacted”... Sign of the times. The Frankenstein’s Wedding Event, Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds – 19th March, 2011... This Live drama event produced by the BBC was the most amazing setting, especially lit up the way that it was and with the ‘larger-then-life’ full moon overhead... Kirkstall Abbey is a ruined Cistercian monastery It was founded c.1152. It was disestablished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII... As Christians we speak of ourselves as the body of Christ but make no mistake there is another body (Frankenstein / Religion) and its body is made up of foul and diabolical parts. This body is held together by a ..V.. that transforms itself into a Circle of Worldly Power. All circles of worldly power rely on secrecy, this gives an advantage based on deception, and serves the Evil One. He cannot be beaten at his own game, the early Christians used signs and gesture, but these can be duplicated, then we have duplicity and confusion at play; for those on the outside, like myself, friend or foe you no longer know...It was put to me many years ago, “it’s a bit like the game of tag, you pass the lurgy (British slang) to someone else”. Conclusion you then become part of Group think (The ’body’). While also been told jovially “the new holder of the lurgy always has the option to get rid of his load (Worldly troubles) by passing it on. kevin your brother in Christ

Kevin Walters | 18 July 2019  

Another ‘blame the government’ analysis. What weighting does the author give to the fact each asylum seeker can cease their mental suffering by flying off to any of 195 countries except Australia, with the airline ticket fully paid for by Australian taxpayers?

Barry | 19 July 2019  

I would like to see a thoughtful face saving solution to this debacle put forward, but none has appeared yet. Shaming Government, and especially the PM, only seems to make them dig their heals in further. I fear that the outrage over Nauru and Manus has actually perpetuated the problem because it hasn't been accompanied by any viable policy alternatives the Govt can introduce to redeem the situation and their reputation.

Matthew Davis | 19 July 2019  

The hostages on Manus and Nauru are scapegoats of Australian fear. The crisis of refugees worldwide has awoken the perennial white Australian fear of being invaded, swamped, as white boat people originally invaded and swamped this land, (and still persist in running away from that truth). The people on Manus and Nauru carry the blame for this situation, called "illegal", "queue jumpers", painted as threats, and coming on the wrong date. They are accused of having the solution in their hands - just go back to where you came from, the Australian government says (á la Trump). They fulfil all the criteria of traditional scapegoats: foreign, different, suspect, weak, lacking means of retaliation. They suffer the violent fate always inflicted on scapegoats. In this case, it is a gradual, finely-honed death - a slow torture. Governments try to keep it all secret, using every trick in the book. That is because, unlike ancient scapegoating, it would be too much for Australians to stomach the facts if they were not being relentlessly concealed. The recent media raids make it clear that government is intent on protecting itself and its cronies, and will abuse and twist the law to that purpose. Thank God for CAPSA and all the other groups in Australia trying to keep the nation human in all this. And at the Queen Victoria Statue a man stands every Friday between 5-6 p.m. witnessing to this terrible mortal sin being committed by Australia. He'll be there today.

Susan Connelly | 19 July 2019  

Josh thankyou and Catholic Alliance for your words and actions. Daily I pray for all people , such as yourselves , Brigidine Assylum Seekers and others working to advocate for our fellow human beings held in detention. Barry , I am one who also has reservations about the "regime" in government that is so heartless . The actions of our government are doing huge damage to the psyche and spirit of the Australian people . Last week a young man in the detention center in Melbourne died. He has remained nameless and discarded as a newsworthy item. It is so wrong to detain people indefinitely.

Celia | 19 July 2019  

Thank you Joshua for once again reminding us of the damage that is being done in our name. After six years, numerous letters, petitions, posts, conversations, donations from many, many of us the situation looks more hopeless than ever. If I feel like that I can imagine that for the refugees and asylum seekers who are "our" victims the hopelessness must be immense. We must just keep speaking, giving, praying and hoping.

Janet | 19 July 2019  

Barry, that is not correct. The people held on Manus and Nauru have only two options: 1. Remain captive there indefinitely 2. Return to their homeland to face the life-threatening persecution they fled. They are cannot go to “any of 195 countries”. The Australian government will only release them to places where they have citizenship or current visas.

Linda | 19 July 2019  

Not in My Name. Off now to protest in my small town, with my banner. Daughter of a woman refugee saved by the Quakers.

Karis | 19 July 2019  

Thank you, Josh––and thanks to the Brigidines and CAPSA for doing our work for us all. How strange is the human condition that lets us see ugly truths, but not SEE! Particularly when we are implicated neck-deep in them. At this moment I'm sadly crossing out the "5 years" on our Rural Australians for Refugees' banner, and replacing it with a "6" for Armidale's silent vigil tomorrow.

Frances Letters | 19 July 2019  

Thank you for that excellent analysis. My hope is that politicians would read what you have written Josh and admit that they have got it wrong and have the courage to admit it.

Elizabeth Morris | 19 July 2019  

Today's two stunning essays demand howls of protest. My mother used to sometimes say: "Beware the well-modulated voice". Its time we howled!

Michael Furtado | 20 July 2019  

Heart breaking time for many who have worked tirelessly to bring our government to account. Can't imagine how people detained on Manus or Nauru can bear much more of this torture. Attended our local protest yesterday and was heartened to see people responding with hoots & cheers, as they passed by. We will do more and we will succeed as more people become aware of what is happening.

Coralie | 20 July 2019  

While I sympathise with the writer's view, may I be pedantic and point out that (Dr.) Frankenstein is the monster's creator, not the monster?

Lenore Crocker | 20 July 2019  

Thousands of Australians who have been employed in this cruel regime of punishment, not protection, are themselves damaged by the experience. That has cost the economy, that has cost society. Thank you to all who speak out and tell the world that indefinite detention of innocent refugees is unwarranted and so very wrong. Hold our Parliament to account! My new MP will not like me drawing Josh’s account to his attention , but I will keep on reporting the government sponsored pain and suffering and ask him to end this evil system.

Frederika Steen | 21 July 2019  

The Parliamentarians and public servants who have devised this evil system of more persecution for the already persecuted (refugees!) and managed it, and over six years only tightened the noose not reformed or abandoned it, could/would not do this to men women and children seeking protection IF they could see them as sisters, brothers , fathers, mothers, daughters and sons. Does the pathway to reform not include the promotion of universal human rights? Is it not a question of ‘but who is my neighbour’ but ‘who is NOT my neighbour’?

Frederika Steen | 21 July 2019  

Resettling those being processed offshore in Australia will open the floodgates for people smugglers. Australian already accepts thousands of refugees yearly (as it should). People who pay to circumnavigate our refugee systems and processes are not of good character when they want to ‘sneak in the back door’. Nor should the people smugglers be given an opportunity to grow their business which is what will happen if Australia settles these people in Australia . Many boats carrying asylum seekers have sunk with an unknown and unknowable loss of life. People need to apply to come to Australia legally and then wait their turn along with everyone else.

A nne | 04 November 2019  

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