In January 2017, during his first post-inauguration telephone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Donald Trump learned how Australia treats refugees. The U.S. president responded abruptly to Turnbull by saying: “You are worse than I am.”
He was right.
Australia imprisons asylum-seekers in “offshore detention centers,” the euphemism the nation’s politicians use for the prisons on three remote islands ― Manus Island, Christmas Island and the tiny Micronesian nation of Nauru. It has been reprimanded by the United Nations for treating asylum-seekers like criminals and for violating the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Yet Australia, which is a wealthy nation with a skilled labor shortage, has continued to exile thousands of people fleeing oppression, war, discrimination, dictatorship, persecution, and attacks by criminal and terrorist groups to indefinite sentences in prisons in the middle of a silent ocean.
I am one of them. I have been imprisoned on Manus Island for five years. In Iran, I was a journalist, and I fled rather than live under state surveillance. I came to Australia ― first flying to Indonesia and then taking a boat ― seeking safety and freedom. Instead, the government locked me up, along with hundreds of other desperate people, including women and children.
“That is a good idea,” Trump told Turnbull during their phone call. “We should do that, too.”
I came to Australia ... seeking safety and freedom. Instead, the Australian government locked me up, along with hundreds of other desperate people.
For years, my fellow prisoners and I have suffered as the Australian government inflicts emotional, psychological and physical torture on us. There is no adequate medical care and no psychological services to help us deal with the trauma we have endured. For many refugees, the conditions under which Australia warehouses us are literally unbearable.
Since 2014, 12 asylum-seekers have died in these island detention centers. Last month, a 52-year-old Rohingya refugee died by suicide on Manus Island. He had fled genocide in Myanmar and sought safety in Australia. Instead, the husband and father of three ― a 12-year-old, an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old ― died in Australian custody having never even met his youngest child. Barely a week ago, a young man from Iran took his own life, too. The 26-year-old was incarcerated with his mother and 7-year-old brother in a family prison on Nauru.
In these island prisons, it is common for children to harm and even try to kill themselves. There have been incidents of physical and sexual abuse by guards, and children have been placed in solitary confinement. Only a small selection of these incidents have been reported in the media, and the government has tried to silence nurses and doctors who treat refugees on the islands and want to speak to the press about what they have witnessed.
This is the kind of system Trump has admired from afar ― and now he is trying to copy it.
Just a few days ago, during a hearing on a resolution to condemn the Trump administration’s family separation policy, Australia’s Greens Sen. Nick McKim said that his country’s mistreatment of refugees has “inspired the likes of Donald Trump and other far-right regimes around the world, and Donald Trump admitted last week that he looked at what Australia is doing ... before he came up with his appalling policy of ripping children from their families.”
Last week, Trump declared an end to his own policy of separating families, with plans to replace it with a program of indefinite family detention of the kind Australia has practiced for years. I write from the darkness of the prison on Manus Island to beg the American public: Do all you can to prevent your government from solidifying this inhumane policy. The Australian public did not and the consequences have been devastating.
Over these years, I have come to know the pain and anguish of the men, women and little children on these islands. There is nothing harder to watch than the affliction of a father or mother whose child is suffering. There is no deeper despair than that of a parent who is helpless to protect their child.
As I write, there are many fathers around me who have not seen their children in five years. I see the consequences of this form of torture, how deeply it affects them. Eventually, it annihilates them. There are fathers incarcerated here who are pushed to the edge of madness by their desire to see and embrace their children. They have one dream, and one dream only: to hold their little sons or daughters in their arms again.
There are fathers incarcerated here who are pushed to the edge of madness by their desire to see and embrace their children.
The situation on Manus Island and Nauru is a tragedy that has festered before Australia’s eyes for years. Protests by citizens and civil society have failed to pressure the government into abanding this inhumanity. Both major political parties continue to support the use of offshore prisons. Unless the American people and their political leaders take decisive action in this moment, this is the terrifying future that awaits them, but on a much larger scale.
When President Trump told Prime Minister Turnbull that Australia is worse than the United States in how it treats asylum-seekers and refugees, he was correct. But only for now.
Behrouz Boochani is an Iranian journalist who has been held on Manus Island, approximately 500 miles from Australia, since 2013. This article was translated from Farsi by Omid Tofighian.