Madeline Gleeson is a lawyer and Research Associate at the ‘Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law’ at UNSW. In her ‘spare time’, at the beginning of this year she published Offshore: Behind the Wire at Manus and Nauru. Her purpose has been to inform the Australian public about how our immigration policy has been implemented over the past five years. Considering her background Gleeson was certainly the right person to take on the job of compiling, in great detail, the events that have taken place on Australia’s tropical processing centres since 2012. The quote from David Marr on the book's front cover sums it up perfectly: "I thought I knew this saga but I learned so much. Stray details enter like a knife."
The complications of offshore detention can easily remain as a quiet hum in the background of a busy Australian’s life. Our exposure to the reality of what actually happens on Manus and Nauru Island is limited, apart from dramatic headlines that have appeared from time to time over the past five years, telling of horrific incidents that have occurred and a lack of medical response. But most of us have become very good at turning a blind eye to this issue, placing it in the “too difficult” basket whether decidedly, or unintentionally.
At the beginning of last year, I began visiting Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney’s West with a couple of friends from my church. Here, I met a beautiful Sri Lankan family, and my ability to ignore this violation of human rights quickly diminished. They spoke of their yearlong experience of life on Nauru Island and my complacent eyes were forced open.
The more I heard, the more I began to question: How could I possibly have such limited knowledge of or care for this humanitarian crisis happening in my own backyard?
Our previous two governments have effectively controlled the information leaked about its offshore processing system, known as the “Pacific Solution”. In saying this, many social workers, doctors and security guards have returned from working on Manus or Nauru as whistle blowers. Their revelations have helped to piece more of the puzzle together.
In her book Gleeson compiles information from an immense range of sources to chronologically tell the story of Australia’s offshore detention centres. She does this by using official documents released by the UN, NGOs and the government, private communications, video transcripts, newspaper articles and records of parliamentary enquiries. Gleeson presents a detailed factual account of the changing government procedures from 2012 to 2015. She doesn’t force her opinion blatantly into the reader’s face. Rather, she endeavours to allow the facts speak for themselves.
The book is logically divided into four main sections, each focussing on a key period of impact of the Pacific Solution on asylum seekers.
The first section is named No Advantage, and revisits the initial introductory period of offshore processing (2012-13). The No Advantage Policy introduced in 2012 stated that all asylum seekers who arrive by boat will be transferred to a regional processing centre to have their claims for refugee status assessed. The intent is that they will have “no advantage” over others seeking residency in Australia.
This is followed by No Resettlement, an exploration into the impact of the policy of the Rudd government, introduced in 2013-14. The new plan in partnership with PNG’s prime minister, Peter O’Neill was to ensure that no asylum seeker who arrived by boat, would ever be given the chance to settle in Australia. The alternatives were designed to be as undesirable as each other: settlement in PNG or being sent back home. This policy, for the first time in Australia’s history saw Australia’s borders completely closed to any spontaneous arrivals by sea.
The third section of the book, No Improvement delves into the difficult conditions faced by asylum seekers living on Manus and Nauru Island. Gleeson includes the powerful personal testimonies of those who have experienced offshore detention first hand. It also highlights the pitfalls of the alternative living arrangements the Australian government attempted to provide in Cambodia, which had only been chosen by three people at the time of writing.
The last quarter of Offshore No End in Sight is a bleak forecast of the future of offshore processing. In a chapter titled “”How did it come to this?” Gleeson provides an evaluation of the government’s policy to date, followed by a realistic outline of the steps that would need to be taken to reverse the damage that has been made over the past few years.
Gleeson writes with admirable control and objectivity about a topic which lends itself naturally to emotionally charged, opinion laden writing. This is not to say that she lacks passion. In her compilation of sources she clearly has an agenda. She balances the order of dry government press releases with powerful stories from asylum seekers and whistle blowers in a remarkable way that masks her anger about the events. She also provides almost 80 pages of endnotes to encourage the reader to continue their own investigation.
Most of the material Gleeson has sourced in this book is freely available online, and has been for quite some time in many cases. One of Gleeson’s strongest assets from her research background is her knack of arranging excerpts from hundreds of different places into a commanding and articulate account. Some of the cases she chooses to focus on may be “old news”, but by bringing together standout circumstances we may have only scrolled past in our Facebook feed (the stories of baby Asha and Hamid Khazaei, for example) in the context of the bigger picture, these pieces of the puzzle are given greater significance. After each page, the reader is left to question why both of our government parties have condoned, and will apparently continue to allow the practise of offshore detention.
The epigraph in the first few pages of Offshore begin with two of the most perpetually ironic lines of the Australian national anthem: “For those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share.” These lines seem at odds with our inability to live up to our publicly stated historical values. As I read these lines, my heart sank as I realised how blatantly obvious our failure to share our boundless plains has been. However, the following lines provide a hope-filled plea: “With courage let us all combine, to advance Australia fair.”
Whistle blowers and detainees have shown courage in vocalising their experiences. In writing this book, Madeline Gleeson has also shown great courage. Whatever your stance may be on issues surrounding asylum seekers, please take a small step of courage and read this book. Taking a personal interest in an issue that is too easy to remain silent about, is a remarkable first step of action. Gleeson has done the hard work of compiling the details for us, all you are required to do is to read them.
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