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Out of Sight, Out of Our Minds

As the American detainee crisis deepens, Australia’s own immigration catastrophe points to a bleaker future

The tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru, all 8.1 square miles of it, used to be a pile of shit; that is, a pile of very valuable, phosphate-rich seabird guano. That explains why a tiny speck in the middle of nowhere was fought over and colonized by the Germans, then Australia and New Zealand (joint hall monitors of a League of Nations mandate), then the Japanese, and then the British.

When it achieved independence in 1968 it was better positioned for the future than most European colonies in the Pacific because the phosphate reserves were not yet depleted. More commonly the UK would grant independence immediately after the last phosphates were mined (as in Kiribati in 1979), and some cynics have suggested that such timing was not entirely coincidental. But Nauru appeared to do everything right. It set up a national Trust for its guano earnings and from 1968 to 1980 its roughly ten thousand citizens were the wealthiest people per capita on Earth.

Alas, the Trust fell to a series of zany investment schemes, including Air Nauru (repo men took its sole Boeing 737), luxury properties in Sydney and Melbourne (used mostly for Nauruan elites to treat themselves to luxury vacations), and, I shit you not, financing the 1993 West End flop Leonardo the Musical. By 2003 Nauru’s once-vaunted phosphate Trust had dwindled from well over $1 billion to $100 million. If that sounds like a lot of money, it isn’t for a nation with virtually no other substantial revenue stream. The guano was gone. Tourism was impossible (too remote, too underdeveloped). Manufacturing was nonexistent. Aside from a little fishing, there was no way to bring in money.

Nauru was once again rich in resources, only this time the minerals were the poor, the abused, the war-ravaged, and the persecuted.

And that is how in 2001 the Nauru Regional Processing Centre came into being, an economic life preserver tossed at a desperate nation by Australia. The Aussies, as it happened, were in need of a place to stash thousands of would-be immigrants and asylum seekers it very much did not want on Australian soil. Legally, if migrants could be intercepted at sea and prevented from setting foot in Australia proper, the government could maintain legal cover for denying them a slew of rights and privileges.

In exchange for detaining this most inconvenient population indefinitely, Nauru received a steady and valuable influx of Australian dollars. The island was once again rich in resources, only this time the minerals were the poor, the abused, the war-ravaged, and the persecuted of Indonesia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and other troubled spots throughout Asia.

Australia’s history with non-white immigration is, even from the view within the American glass house, deeply troubled. The “White Australia” policy was law of the land until 1973, and the harsh immigration policies imposed in 2001 (fueled partly by the right-wing populist ascendancy of the ghoulish Pauline Hanson, who is sort of Australia’s Donald Trump, both sharing a fondness for business failures and a voice like a pneumatic drill press), made it abundantly clear that the nation had decided not merely that there were too many immigrants but too many Asian immigrants. Tellingly, Australia labeled its tough new post-2000 policy of herding non-white immigrants into fenced camps the “Pacific Solution,” revealing a disturbingly fascist streak beneath the nation’s carefully crafted veneer of koalas and Natalie Imbruglia. 

The nation’s vile treatment of its Aboriginal population, up to and including ripping Aboriginal children from their parents and sending them to live with white families, fills volumes and cannot be done justice here.

Nauru’s open-air detention center was not Australia’s only creative attempt to keep asylum seekers off its soil at all costs. One of its own territories, Christmas Island, was actually excised by the Howard government from the nation’s migration zone—so that detainees seeking asylum could not formally become refugees. A final holding pen was housed in Papua New Guinea—stop me if any of this rings bells—on an Australian military base.

Throughout their fifteen-plus year histories, the centers have proven themselves black holes into which immigrants are dropped and left to sit for years on end while their applications for asylum, which of course are never approved, are “processed.” If it seems like nothing bad could happen to a legally ambiguous population of non-people, disdained by much of the host nation’s public and government, while being held indefinitely in remote locations, I implore you not to take a sip of hot coffee before moving on.

The powerless, quasi-stateless, confined people in these facilities have been exploited at every turn, separated from whatever meager possessions they have by thieves and con men and subject to physical and sexual abuse while housed in open tents in hot, tropical conditions. One UK-based legal group called child abuse at the Nauru camp “institutionalized.” The camps are a humanitarian Chernobyl, a moral blight on the nation, and both a great expense and tremendous embarrassment to those Australians who care about such things as not being pointlessly cruel to the most helpless segment of humanity.

This is all to emphasize that there is nothing new or novel about Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” immigration policy. Americans need only to crane their necks and look across the Pacific to see what it will look like in practice. We are already building tent cities on military bases, which worked so well for Australia that its Manus Regional Processing Centre on Lombrum Naval Base was shuttered in October 2017 after a decade of routine horror stories finally wore down Canberra’s resolve. Nauru, though, is easier to ignore. The lesson of keeping the gray-area population totally out of sight and out of mind has no doubt been learned well.  

The White House must be giddy with joy at the embarrassment of options available for a similar scheme in the United States. Which genius from the Cato Institute—or will it be the Hoover Institute? Maybe AEI?—will propose rebuilding the Puerto Rican economy by turning it into our very own legally ambiguous floating prison! What about Guam, or the Northern Marianas Islands—those are still part of the United States, sorta, aren’t they? Couldn’t some impoverished Pacific micro-state be carpet-bombed with cash in exchange for compliance? Or we could outsource our cruel immigration policies as easily as we outsourced torture to servile, semi-authoritarian allies in the War on Terror.

They better decide quickly, though. At this rate there will be over thirty thousand children (and several times as many adults) in detention by the end of August.

The hundreds turn into thousands and then into tens of thousands, and the question of where to put such a vast number of unwanted people will quickly become unavoidable.

None of this is new. It has happened elsewhere and there is not one moderately plausible argument against it happening here. To the extent that laws protect non-citizens detained at the border while seeking asylum in the United States, those laws are disregarded, subject to bizarre, intentionally obtuse interpretation, or changed to suit the passions of the moment. As the number of detained people increases with time, the solutions for keeping them safely away from the prying eyes of bleeding heart types will grow more aggressive. A tent camp here, a military base there, and inevitably a search for a more permanent “solution.”

When the hundreds turn into thousands and then into tens of thousands, the question of where to put such a vast number of unwanted people will quickly become unavoidable for a government intent on rounding up as many as possible. The lesson from Australia, where the presence of a camp on an Australian naval base proved a magnet for criticism while others hidden away on Nauru and Christmas Island are safer from prying eyes, is clear: out of sight is out of mind. Already subject to nakedly dehumanizing rhetoric and held in a legal limbo that most Americans greet with a shrug, the future of the human beings caught up in Trump’s xenophobic posturing is bleak. No amount of public outcry is likely to get this administration to stop putting human beings in cages. More likely, they will find somewhere to hide the cages.