CANBERRA (AP): When Abdul Aziz reached Australia’s Christmas Island aboard a smuggler’s boat in 2013, he had no idea that weeks earlier his fate as a refugee from Sudan seeking a new life in a new world had been sealed. Australia drew a line in the sand on July 19 of that year to stem a rising tide of asylum seekers brought by people smugglers on long and treacherous ocean voyages. No refugees who attempted to reach its shores by boat from that date forward would be allowed to make Australia their home.
Five years later, the polarizing policy lauded as a template for other countries and condemned as a cruel abrogation of Australia’s international obligations appears to have succeeded as a deterrent. Near-daily arrivals from Indonesian ports of rickety fishing boats have virtually stopped. But what to do with the hundreds of asylum seekers banished by Australia to sweltering immigration camps in the poor Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru is gaining urgency.
“The simplest way for me to describe it is it’s just like hell,” Aziz, 25, told The Associated Press by phone from an immigration hostel in a Papua New Guinea village. He hopes to be among the 1,250 refugees barred by Australia that President Donald Trump has reluctantly agreed to accept as part of a deal struck between Australia and former President Barack Obama’s administration. “You send people to a place and you want those people to either die or go back to where they came from even if that place is very, very dangerous,” Aziz said. He described a growing sense of hopeless and fear of hostile villagers among the asylum seekers, some of whom are mute with despair.
Daniel Webb, director of Australia’s Human Rights Law Center, told the U.N. Human Rights Council last month that Nauru’s refugee population included 134 children, 40 who were born there.