Offshore by Madeline Gleeson

30239702Nonfiction – Kindle edition. NewSouth, 2016. 352 pgs. Purchased.

Subtitled “Behind the Wire on Manus and Nauru”, Gleeson’s book examines Australia’s policy of offshore processing for migrants and asylum seekers. Since 2012, Australia has taken the policy that any person who arrives via boat seeking refugee in Australia will be denied the right to settle. The policy is meant to stop risky travel by boat through the Banda and Timor Seas as well as cut into the profits of smugglers and traffickers.

Such a declaration sounds simple and, at face value, the reasons sound like they are coming from a place of concern. In practice, the policy means migrants arriving via boats from Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries must be settled somewhere with the Australian government paying millions of dollars to Papua New Guinea (of which Manus Island is a part of) and the Republic of Nauru to detain migrants transferred from Australia or from boats to their islands.

“Behind the talk was clearer proof of Australia’s involvement in these foreign cases: money. Australia was picking up the tab for the PNG government’s legal bills – up to $370,000 in the period to May 2013 alone.”

The physical relocation allows the Australian government to claim the refugees are the responsibility of Papua New Guinea or Nauru, to turn a blind eye to squalor of the camps and the physical and emotional harm that those detained are subjected to. Successive prime ministers and their governments from 2012 to 2015 say they do not have to process asylum claims for these individuals because they are not in Australia, allowing the government to dodge accusations that Australia is violating United Nations declarations about the right of asylum the country has long be a signatory of.

“Things were not right offshore, that much as clear. But was the Gillard government merely struggling to implement a difficult policy within the near-impossible political and practical constraints it faced? Or was offshore processing playing out exactly as intended — a harsh warning to prospective asylum seekers not to get on a boat lest they end up with the same fate? Was the welfare of asylum seekers a priority, or would a certain amount of suffering help the government’s cause politically?”

I purchased a copy of Gleeson’s book when it was longlisted for the 2017 Stella Prize. However, it wasn’t until my recent trip to Southeast Asia where I had an lengthy conversation with an Australian tourist and our Cambodian guide about America’s immigration policies that I was reminded of this book languishing on my Kindle unread.

Reminded because, although I agreed that America’s treatment of people from majority Muslim nations and from Central America is abhorrent and should be condemned, I also felt like the Australian tourist should not be throwing stones when he lives in a glass house. Reminded because I also felt like I didn’t have the facts and figures to back up that claim beyond headlines and cursory glances at articles. (Thankfully, our Cambodian guide did because, as Gleeson explains, Cambodia was one of the countries that Australia offered payments to in return for resettling some of these migrants.)

Divided into four chronological sections, Gleeson’s book explains how the Australian government came to adopt such a hard line policy in 2012; how the set up of detention facilities in 2012 and 2013 were hastily done without concern for the safety of immigrants or for the conditions of the offshore centers; how those detained began to turn to suicide and self-harm; and the state of the program at the end of 2015 as more and more information about the abhorrent conditions begin to appear in the media.

“Since 2012 the executive government had been amassing considerable power when it came to immigration policy: the immigration minister was granted sweeping discretionary authority to act with relative freedom on key matters; extraordinary secrecy laws were passed to clamp down on whistleblowers; and new legislation had been rushed through to shore up the legality of the offshore processing regime retroactively, after legal challenges threatened to dismantle it. Meanwhile the people subject to this regime had few enforceable rights, and little control over even the most basic aspects of their own lives. There was a phenomenal power imbalance, yet somehow the Australian government was emerging as the victim, under siege by a small group of desperate people locked away in hospital rooms and detention centres around the country, powerless.”

The chronological structure of the book allows the reader to see how the elected government of Australia and its judicial branch has reacted — positively or negatively — to this program while simultaneously fostering an understanding in the reader as to how despair has begun to set in with the migrants. Yet the book manages to emulate the best kind of nonfiction by maintaining an emotional distance from the subject.

Gleeson has an agenda in writing the book; why else would she write it? But she is also suave enough to let the facts and the findings compiled from the governments’ own documents and testimonies taken in a court of law speak for themselves. The issues are clearly, concisely laid out for the reader, and the snippets that have made their way into the (American) media are strung together to form a complete, educational picture about the Australian policy and practice of offshore detention.

As for my original reason for reading Gleeson’s book, do I feel prepared to have a informed conversation about how my country and his are responding to people appearing on our borders and claiming asylum? Yes, of course. More importantly, though, I feel further resolved to make sure my own country does not follow (further) down the path that the Australians have taken.

‘Offshore’ was longlisted for the Stella Prize in 2017. 

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