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Australia subjects refugees to a cruel fate. US shouldn’t follow.

Protesters in Sydney protested mandatory offshore detention on the islands of Manus and Nauru. JEREMY NG/EPA/Shutterstock

THE AUSTRALIAN DETENTION CAMPS on the tiny Micronesian islands of Nauru and Manus are, by all accounts, hell on earth.

Adult detainees have set themselves on fire, and children as young as 10 have repeatedly attempted suicide. Allegations of sexual assault and child abuse are rampant. Camp conditions are toxic, but health care has been denied to detainees. The government has banned journalists and human rights advocates. Thousands of citizens on the mainland have staged protests, to no avail.


As the Trump administration — rooted from the start in xenophobia and enthnonationalism — continues to bend toward authoritarianism, many concerned US citizens have looked to history for a blueprint. The ubiquity of the Holocaust in American culture makes it a go-to model of how a society turns to evil, and so many conversations about the excesses of the administration have invoked that horror as a measure for how bad things have, or have not yet, become.

We’ve argued about whether or not the immigrant detention centers under construction can, or should, be compared to the concentration camps where the Nazi regime systematically murdered its victims. If you spend time in the left-leaning sphere of social media, you’ve probably seen variations of historian Gregory Stanton’s “10 Stages of Genocide” or Martin Niemöller’s “First they came . . . ” prose poem passed around. And those of us most disturbed by the president’s overtures to actual neo-Nazis have wondered aloud if, or when, the administration would start moving to dismantle the apparatus of democracy, revoke citizenship for people of color, and round up “undesirables” in our cities and towns.


The administration has certainly feinted in that direction, with increasingly aggressive raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on undocumented immigrants, plans to deny citizenship to legal residents who have legally used public assistance programs, and a task force to denaturalize immigrants who have already obtained citizenship.

But it’s not necessary for a government to turn to fascism or totalitarianism, or for it to prey on its own citizens, for it to establish a human rights abomination under authority of law. To understand the dangers of current American immigration policy, it’s not necessary to look all the way back to Germany in 1939. Australia in 2001 is a much better model.

Nauru, an impovershed island nation widely considered to be a client-state of Australia, was first established as a refugee center after more than 400 Afghan Hazara refugees were rescued from a sinking boat by a Norwegian freighter. In defiance of international law — and in part to prop up a flagging reelection campaign — Australia’s prime minister, John Howard, refused to let the freighter deliver the refugees to its shores. Instead, he diverted them to hastily prepared camps on Nauru and later, on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.

The Nauru and Manus detention centers were shut down in 2007, but reopened in 2012 as refugees once more began heading toward Australia in boats. It has now outlasted several administrations and countless scandals. Children have been born in the camps, and grown up there.


Despite revelations about horrors in the camps, Australia’s policy has remained that no asylum seekers arriving by boat should be given entrance to the country. Rather, refugees collect in the misery of the camps. “The camps were designed to be punitive,” writes the Guardian’s Ben Doherty, “and were widely promoted as a deterrent, to discourage anybody from seeking sanctuary in Australia by boat.”

And although it’s legal to ask for asylum, Australian government officials “refer to asylum seekers as ‘illegals’ and describe offshore processing as ‘border protection,’ ” Australian human rights lawyer Julian Burnside wrote in the Guardian.

Throughout all this, Australia’s government has remained democratic. Fascism has not transformed daily life on the mainland, journalism has not been abolished, and Australian citizens have not been stripped of their rights and rounded up into camps. Yet once the detention camps came into existence, it became nearly impossible to eradicate them: Numerous protests have had no effect. And yet their government continues to perpetrate what one detainee, a Kurdish journalist, called a “place beyond suffering.”

In the United States, the detention centers opened under the Obama administration and enlarged by the Trump administration are already showing signs of becoming the kind of hell that Nauru and Manus became. The Australian camps are less well known in the United States than is Auschwitz, but we should be as vigilant against the former as the latter.