When the Houston panel recommended a return to offshore asylum seeker processing in Nauru and Papua New Guinea last year, the intention was that it be used as a short-term “circuit breaker”. But as the boats keep arriving and amid ongoing reports of sub-standard conditions, self-harm and distress among offshore detainees, the question must be asked: exactly which circuits did the panel think would be broken by returning to this much-condemned policy?

Over recent years, the advice from government agencies has been clear — setting up detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea would not act as a deterrent to boat arrivals. If the Pacific Solution had led to a decrease in boats after 2001 (and the point is arguable), the same result could not be repeated today.

John Howard’s Pacific Solution was always more about politics than good policy, and since 2010 it has served as the political plaything of a pugilistic Opposition Leader. All Julia Gillard needed to do was pick up the phone to Nauru and the boats would stop, cried Tony Abbott and his supporters. The detention centre in Nauru was ready to receive asylum seekers, “it’s in good condition, it could be reopened within a matter of weeks, and I think Nauru would send the strongest possible signal to the people smugglers”, Abbott told the Nine network.

But Abbott was not being honest. The centres in Nauru and PNG were not ready to go at short notice, and the tin-eared people smugglers have predictably overwhelmed the offshore capacity, ensuring that most future arrivals will be processed in Australia. If not for a range of factors working in his favour, Howard would have faced the same scenario in 2001.

Current conditions in the offshore centres are clearly inadequate and well below acceptable standards in Australia. Reports from the UN Refugee Agency are disturbing, and promises from all governments to allow freedom for asylum seekers are yet to be honoured. Australian media and other independent visitors are usually banned from both centres.

The Nauru government has cried foul over past reporting of the “appalling” conditions in its camps. In 2010, former president Marcus Stephen said: “We should have brought in media people to have a look at the place. I don’t know why the media were not allowed to come.”

So if it was a mistake to ban journalists in 2001 and current conditions are up to acceptable standards — as we’re being told — why not let in media? Why not allow Australians to see how our money is being spent and how detainees are treated? The aBC’s Jeff Waters is more than willing to reveal the truth of current arrangements in Nauru — he has been trying to gain access for months — so why not let him in?

“… the government is using the concept to justify lowered standards of treatment for asylum seekers and delays in processing claims.”

The lack of transparency and accountability under Howard’s Pacific Solution has left a stain on all governments involved. When the camps were closed in 2008, Labor said Howard’s policy was cruel and ineffective. But even with the benefit of hindsight, current governments in all countries seem intent on repeating past mistakes and adding new missteps.

Gillard said this week: “The only thing that happens for people in our asylum seeker facilities is there is a proper assessment of whether or not they are a genuine refugee.” But Gillard’s words rattle with emptiness when no processing has yet taken place in Nauru or PNG, more than five months since the first asylum seekers arrived, and no start date for determinations is in sight.

Camp conditions will undoubtedly improve over coming months, and more permanent accommodation will replace tents and dongas. But the unresolved and ever-present question of “what will happen to me” will torture detainees for as long as they remain in a deliberately imposed limbo. Will I have a future? How long will I be forced to live with the crippling effects of uncertainty? Where will I be living in one, two or three years? How can I care for my children behind these fences? The governments deciding the fate of current detainees are unwilling to provide the answers.

The “no advantage” concept, underpinning many current decisions, was recommended by the Houston panel to try to level the playing field for refugees in the region. But the idea is meaningless when a fair regional system is not in place and when some asylum seekers are allowed to remain in Australia and others are shipped off to island detention centres. In practice, the government is using the concept to justify lowered standards of treatment for asylum seekers and delays in processing claims.

The reopening of offshore centres has served as a political circuit breaker for the Gillard government — by adopting Tony Abbott’s policy, the government at least looks like it’s doing something to “stop the boats”. The voters in Western Sydney might have exhaled for just a moment. But the smoke and mirrors approach has meant returning to a policy that diverts Australian money, energy and attention away from innovative and long-term approaches to a policy that deliberately harms human beings — this time chosen randomly from the thousands who have arrived in recent months — in an attempt to scare away others.

Rather than investing in and stepping up our engagement in the region, the government is diverting millions of dollars to build permanent facilities in Nauru and Papua New Guinea — countries with little relevance to a genuine regional arrangement. And regardless of whether or not a single asylum seeker is deterred from arriving to Australia, Australians will be forced to fund these Pacific cash cows for many years to come.

*Susan Metcalfe made numerous visits to the Nauru detention centre between 2005 and 2008

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey