Studying the tall, wired fences that stood starkly around the perimeter of the shabby grey stacked buildings, Thanush Selvarasa had only one thought: prison.
However, the then 23-year-old had not committed any crime. He was a refugee who had fled his war-torn homeland of Sri Lanka, heading on a boat to Australia in a bid to find safety and freedom.
‘It was the most terrible place,’ recalls Thanush, who was taken to the Manus Island Processing Facility in Papua New Guinea, 45 days after his boat arrived at Christmas Island. ‘I am still suffering, even now.’
Now 32, Thanush tells Metro.co.uk that when he fled the war zone in 2013, the Australian government had implemented dramatic changes to migration and refugee laws: something he was not aware of when he made the perilous journey.
This new legislation meant that all asylum seekers arriving by boat without a visa would instead be sent to two offshore processing centres, one in Papua New Guinea, and one in Nauru, and could remain there potentially indefinitely in what was chillingly called ‘the Pacific solution’.
Offshoring refugees in this way has been blasted for being ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading’ by critics – and yet, the UK is still planning to send asylum seekers abroad in a controversial partnership with Rwanda.
During Boris Johnson’s tenure at Prime Minister, former Home Secretary Priti Patel The Home Office recently announced that any male asylum seekers who arrive on UK soil by illegal means and are deemed to be ‘economic migrants’, are set to be processed in Rwanda, where they will be given the opportunity to apply for the right to settle in the East African country.
While precise details of the plan are yet to be confirmed, the proposal sees Rwanda taking responsibility for the asylum seekers who are brought over from the UK.
The scheme has not been without its hiccups – the first flight to send asylum seekers was grounded in June after last-minute legal intervention.
However, newly (re)appointed Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, is determined to get the scheme to work, despite its huge criticisms. Having described seeing asylum seekers being flown to Rwanda as ‘her dream’, Braverman has used particularly damning language to describe the UK’s asylum system. She drew fresh condemnation after she called the current legislation as ‘broken’ and described the number of asylum seekers trying to find safety in Britain as ‘an invasion on the south coast.’
Over 160 charities have already urged the government to scrap the plan in an open letter presented by Bond, the UK Network of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s), while the United Nation’s refugee agency has since argued the scheme stands in violation of ‘international law’ – something Johnson has refuted.
Should the proposals be approved, the UK will be following in the footsteps of Australia, Israel and Denmark in sending asylum seekers overseas. However, all three countries have faced heavy opposition to their plans, which have seen such projects halted or suspended at one point.
‘Generally speaking, governments that do this are flouting the spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and they should not be transferring asylum seekers to other countries,’ explains Dr Emilie McDonnell, UK advocacy and communications co-ordinator at the charity Human Rights Watch. ‘Under international law, immigration detention should not be used as punishment, but rather should be an exceptional measure of last resort to carry out a legitimate aim.
‘It’s the externalisation of their own obligations, they’re trying to shift them on to others when they should be sharing responsibility on asylum seekers.’
In response, a spokesperson for the Home Office has told Metro.co.uk: ‘This world-leading Migration Partnership will overhaul our broken asylum system, which is currently costing the UK taxpayer £1.5bn a year – the highest amount in two decades.
‘It means those arriving dangerously, illegally or unnecessarily can be relocated to have their asylum claims considered and, if recognised as refugees, build their lives there.
‘There is nothing in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention which prevents removal to a safe country. Under this agreement, Rwanda will process claims in accordance with national and international human rights laws.’
The UK government’s choosing of Rwanda has also faced a flurry of concern. Located over 6000 miles away from the UK, critics of the new scheme have pointed towards the numerous human rights violations that have occurred under the Rwandan government’s authoritarian rule.
While Johnson lauded Rwanda as one of the safest countries in the world, his statement stands at odds with reports from his own government. A report from the UN Human Rights Council just last year saw a representative from the UK explain: ‘We regret that Rwanda did not support our recommendation, that was made by other States, to conduct transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations into human rights violations including deaths in custody and torture.’
‘The Rwandan government has a very patchy record when it comes to respecting very basic human rights and the rights of refugees,’ explains Dr McDonnell. ‘Arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture in official and unofficial detention centres are commonplace, and fair trial standards are routinely flouted.’
However, it is not where the refugees are relocated to that’s the problem, she adds, but offshoring as a practise in general: Australia standing as a stark example of just how barbaric the process can be.
‘We saw more than eight years of suffering at Australia’s offshore detention centres,’ Dr McDonnell says. ‘They were not only cruel and ineffective, but unlawful, leading to severe and grave abuses of human rights.’
Thanush says he will ‘never forget’ what he had to endure on a daily basis while on Manus Island.
‘We just didn’t know how long we were going to be there for,’ he recalls. ‘The circumstances made us feel like we were going crazy.
‘There were huge queues for food, there were long waiting times for washing and using the toilet. We couldn’t spend time outside. We couldn’t do anything.
‘I can’t even begin to describe the amount of pain people felt in there. We felt so powerless.’
Iranian refugee Loghman Sawari was also one of the 4000 asylum seekers who fell victim to Australian offshore processing, staying on Manus Island at the same time as Thanush.
With his family having been persecuted for being Ahwazi Arab, an ethnic minority targeted by the Iranian government, it was Loghman’s father that urged him to flee and start a new life.
‘My cousin was publicly hanged in 2007,’ he says. ‘And my brothers had been imprisoned. My father told me to leave. I felt like I could be safe in Australia, that I could have a simple life there.’
After travelling through Malaysia, Loghman found himself among hundreds of others of refugees on a rickety fishing vessel heading towards Australia. Aged just 17 at the time, Loghman was scared, but hopeful – until he arrived at Christmas Island, a small Australian territory just over 900 miles from the Australian mainland, where the horrors began.
‘I couldn’t really speak English at the time, but I could understand what they were saying,’ he explains. ‘The army was saying horrendous things to the refugees. They were treating us like animals.
‘When we arrived, the authorities didn’t call us by our names. They gave us all a number, I was GRL078.’
It was this dehumanising move which caused a vital error that led to months of maltreatment for Loghman.
Still a minor when he arrived on Christmas Island, he should have been taken to the Narau processing facility, which is set to cater for families, women and children. However, Loghman was confused for an older Lebanese asylum seeker, and transferred to Manus Island – a processing centre only intended for adult men.
To keep him separated from the other refugees, he was put in isolation, alongside two other children mistakenly sent to Manus Island – with Loghman expected to stay there for the next 12 weeks, until he turned 18.
‘It was one small container, like the sort you put on ships,’ he remembers. ‘We weren’t allowed to leave, and we all slept there. It was also used as an area where people who were sick, vomiting and diarrhoea, so we were ill too.’
Appalled by the conditions he found himself in, Loghman went on hunger strike – which resulted in police intervention.
‘I was taken to the police station to try and scare me into eating,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t even allowed to take my shoes with me so I walked barefoot, with stones and rocks in my feet.
‘They told me to be a “good boy”. If I wanted to be a good boy, I would start eating, and if I didn’t, they’d keep me in prison. I said I’d eat and they sent me back.’
Things didn’t improve for Loghman when he was eventually transferred to the main detention centre in Manus Island. Conditions were cramped, with 150 people per block, and had limited facilities – washing times were rationed, and queues for food were lengthy. When it was served, it sometimes wasn’t edible: worm-infested cereals and mouldy bread are widely reported, while another asylum seeker told a local news site that human teeth were found in one meal.
Despite this, there was very little medical provision for those on Manus Island, with guards being dismissive of any complaints. When his wisdom teeth became severely impacted in the facility, Loghman says he was made to just put up with the pain.
‘We were just told to drink water and take Panadol,’ he explains. ‘There was no treatment whatsoever. They didn’t care.’
Both Loghman and Thanush were in Manus Island during a period of unrest in 2014, in which 23-year-old Iranian refugee Reza Barati was shot and killed, and 77 others were injured, some severely, after two days of riots.
‘We all thought we were going to die,’ Thanush admits. ‘We were just so scared, and no-one seemed to be there to help us.’
Loghman was injured during the fights, after he was hit in the head with a brick.
‘I can still feel the pain from it now, all these years later,’ he says. ‘The security there just didn’t care. We were just like animals to them. If we were to die? It wasn’t something that bothered them.’
As days turned to months, which melted into years, the desperation of the situation left some refugees taking extreme measures. With no set routine, and no end in sight to the detention, some felt there was only one way to unshackle themselves from this never-ending misery: suicide.
The Refugee Council of Australia’s senior policy officer, Sahar Okhovat, said at the time that 12 people had died in Nauru or Manus Island, ‘mainly as a result of inadequate healthcare or by suicide’, and another man took his own life in community detention in October 2019.
Suicide attempts were widely documented on Manus Island: one man set himself on fire, while starvation and self-harm were commonplace.
‘What we saw in Australia was the result of what over eight years of indefinite detention can do to someone,’ Dr McDonnell says. ‘The immense suffering that comes from living in limbo triggered a mental health crisis for thousands of refugees, who are still suffering today.’
Others desperately tried to escape from the dire conditions they found themselves in, trying to claim asylum in another country. Loghman tried to flee to Suva, Fiji, before he was forcibly deported back to Papua New Guinea just days later to Bomana Prison, where he was based for six months.
Loghman was thought to be the first of many refugees to escape the appalling conditions and seek asylum away from the processing centres. Dr McDonnell expresses concerns that refugees taken to Rwanda may also choose to flee – and may even be forced to work with people traffickers – should Britain go ahead with its plans to process asylum seekers abroad.
Pointing towards Israel’s plan to offshore refugees in Rwanda, which was scrapped in 2019, she explains: ‘From reports of what we’ve seen, once individuals were in Rwanda, they simply left the country – some through smuggling routes.
‘The UK government say they want to stop trafficking and for asylum seekers to be able to access safe pathways. But there are no safe routes to the UK, which pushes desperate refugees to these extremes.’
After six years in detention with no end in sight, Thanush was eventually brought to the Australian mainland in 2019 under the country’s short-lived ‘Medevac law’, which allowed refugees to enter Australia to receive urgent medical treatment.
‘Even then, I was treated like a prisoner,’ Thanush recalls. ‘Tears ran down my face when I was brought into the hospital in handcuffs.’
Loghman was also moved to Brisbane hospital after going on hunger strike, and was put on a drip as he was severely dehydrated. After both men completed hospital treatment, the pair were held in detention at a Brisbane hotel for a further two years, until the Australian government began to start releasing refugees from immigration detention.
As part of a deal to resettle refugees brokered with former President Barack Obama, Loghman was moved to the US in 2021. Now living in Texas, he is feeling far older than his 25 years. He says he has the ‘simple life’ he wanted when he first emigrated to Australia. Scraping a living in a plastics factory, Loghman can just about cover rent and food – but is still suffering from the scars inflicted upon him in offshore processing centres.
‘In America, no one calls me a “refugee,”’ he explains. ‘I am a human being. In Australia, you are a refugee until you die.
‘Australia has never apologised to me for what has happened to us. I need justice from to move on. I won’t ever forget what happened to me.’
The fight is not over for Thanush either. Also released from the Brisbane detention centre in 2021, he has remained in Australia – but finds himself struggling as he is only on a temporary visa.
‘Many of us are fighting for permanent residency,’ he says. ‘We can’t stay here on temporary visas. We want to work, contribute and live here, but we’re struggling with what we’ve been issued.’
Manus Island has since been closed, after the supreme court in Papua New Guinea ruled the camp to be ‘unlawful’: but it’s too little, too late for thousands of refugees like Thanush and Loghman who endured such a horrific reality for so long. The Nauru processing centre, meanwhile, is still open.
Having seen first-hand how dehumanising offshore processing can be, they both urge the UK government to reconsider their Rwanda plan.
‘Boris Johnson needs to see the extent of how much refugees suffered in an offshore processing system,’ Thanush explains. ‘Many of us were destroyed mentally and physically.’
‘Offshore processing is a blood red stain on the white sheet of Australia’s history,’ Loghman agrees. ‘No matter how much they try to wash it away, they can’t get rid of it.’
When contacted by Metro.co.uk, a spokesperson from Australia’s Department of Home Affairs praised their offshoring policy.
‘Australia’s multi-layered approach to maritime people smuggling, including boat turn backs, regional processing and no settlement in Australia, is successful,’ they said in a statement. ‘There have been no successful people smuggling ventures to Australia since 2014.
‘Prosecuted through Operation Sovereign Borders, Australia’s policies have successfully stemmed the flow of illegal maritime arrivals to Australia, disrupted people smuggling ventures within the region, and prevented loss of life at sea.
‘Australia’s regional processing arrangements provide illegal maritime arrivals the opportunity to have their protection claims assessed and if found in need of international protection by the Government of Nauru resettlement in a third country, whilst restoring integrity to Australia’s borders.’
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