Nauru and Manus Offshore Detention

Offshore detention has remained a hot button issue within Australia, notably due to the reinstatement of regional processing in 2012 and evidence suggesting the increase of cases of child abuse in detention centres. This essay will focus on the critical role that civic participation played in ending off shore detention for children on Nauru and Manus islands as a strong example of networked citizen-centred participation (Papacharissi 2010). Technological media advancements have ensured that this evidence can be expressed through a variety of platforms from online news outlets to art exhibitions that ensured support from varying social groups. This is further developed by social media, where high public interest is expressed through the political advocacy of hashtags, community pages and online social movements. In this way, brave individuals openly opposed laws, admitting the true nature of injustices of children in detention. Thus, an increased national awareness provides a comprehensive lens of what is really happening to children under the Australian government that is a basis for producing change.

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Raising awareness about increasing child abuse in detention through different platforms have greatly contributed to the removal of children on Manus and Nauru. Technological Internet advances have allowed ongoing media coverage in the form of computer-mediated communication to reverse traditional modes as “a source of political information and a sphere for public expression” (Shah et al. 2005, p. 531). The Guardian’s release of “The Nauru Files” in 2016, where 2,116 leaked separate reports of abuse written by staff from Australia’s offshore immigration detention system between 2013 and 2015, regenerated existing feelings of injustice of those in detention centres. The Asylum Centre Resource Centre findings show that child abuse related to 51.3% of the cases, although children only made up 18% of those in detention on Nauru (Stafford 2018). The reports, made up of sexual abuse, violence and threats to trauma, self-harm and squalor opened the eyes of Australians with detailed accounts of distressing situations on Nauru, previously kept quiet by the Australian government (Afshariyan 2018). This developed into a “networked individualism,” (Wellman, 2002) of individual stories published as connected individuals, rather than a focus on traditional close-knit social groups as it sparked controversy and action, thus inspiring others to take alternate measures (Wellman 2002). In response to the Guardian’s leaked files, a collective exhibition of 33 Australian artists titled All We Can’t See is used as a vehicle for participation and protest to raise awareness of the absence of media access to the island. Its focus on engendering empathy for those abused in the Guardian’s publications through the arts enabled the ability to “(engage) local people to work towards solutions to (problems)…as a means for addressing inequity experienced,” (McHenry 2011, p. 246) that personalised the issue for ordinary Australians.

With the evolution of technology as a platform for ‘internet democracy’ (Loader & Mercea (2011, p. 756), social media raised awareness and enabled the expression of the public’s interest. Since offshore processing was reintroduced by the Rudd government in 2012, continuous lobbying in the form of online protest and social movements grew. From a hashtag and social campaign, #KidsoffNauru evolved into a social movement advocating for all children to be removed from Nauru by International Children’s Day in 2018. A groundswell of support emerged, with only 40% of the public being aware children were being held in detention when the campaign started to almost 200,000 signatures for the #KidsoffNauru petition (#KidsoffNauru 2018). As all children from Nauru were removed in early 2019, the #KidsoffNauru campaign is an important example of how civic participation evolved from raising awareness to producing change through social media. Loader and Mercea surmise the potential of social media to become a “second wave of digital democracy” (Loader & Mercea 2011, p. 756) with citizens merging from passive consumers to active engagers. The Facebook page, Free the Children Nauru, also contributed to the climate of social change and exemplified raising awareness online. The page was created by children from Nauru and features pictures from their lives in the detention centres, otherwise relatively unknown from the Australian public. These personal voices to the situation demonstrate the ability of youth to create their own channels for communication via social media. This therefore “symbolically frees young people to make their own creative choices’ (Bennett 2008, pp. 2-3), providing them access to build a social and personal identity despite being denied entry to Australia.

The individual’s ability to take action is characterised by their disconnection from dominant political discourses that takes “courageous whistleblowing and significant solidarity to resist’ (Lowth 2017, para. 8). Despite speaking in defiance of the new Australian Boarder Force Act 2014 that threatened anyone working in the detention system who speaks openly about it with prison sentences, Australian teachers from Nauru revealed children’s exposure to self-harm violence and sexual abuse. Their collective action was driven by their collective identity and advocation for justice, giving an ordinary Australian voice to the inadequacy of health care of refugees in detention centres (Kluver & Soon 2014). This evidence, supported by documented reports by the Australian Human Rights Commission, were “direct and at times crushing insight into how Australia’s policy of offshore detention is harming children” (Farrell & Wall 2016, para. 7). These findings reflect health issues supported by willing senior medical professionals on the 4 Corners program Bad Blood, including President of the Australian Medical Association Professor Brian Owler who outwardly disagreed with the Australian Government’s policy. This was in reference to a refugee on Nauru who died from inadequate access to health service, who “Could have been saved (if he was) treated properly. But he wasn’t.” (Bad Blood 2016). 

Other key figures such as Australian rock musician Jimmy Barnes also spoke out against the issue, particularly against Peter Dutton’s insistence that Nauru Asylum Seeker children will never settle in Australia. This active participation was demonstrated by 500 people who rallied against offshore detention centres at protest in Melbourne where Barnes insisted that “We should be helping them… sticking them on an island, indefinitely, is not the Australian way” (Barnes, cited in Stafford 2018, para. 5). Thus, with civic participation extended from different social groups promoting awareness of children in detention not only increased awareness, but sparked change, reinforcing the ability of participatory engagement in a strong democracy among Australians. (Loader & Mercea 2011).

Although individual voices assisted in raising awareness of ending offshore detention and removing the children from Nauru and Manus islands, the “decisive empirical shift from individual civic participation to a focus on collective action events” (Sampson et al. 2005 p. 675) was vital in producing successful change. Namely, The Bill 2018 (Urgent Medical Treatment) sought to amend the Migration Act 1958, in order to transfer critically ill children and adults in offshore detention centres for the purpose of receiving urgent medical care. Although initially developed by Dr Kerryn Phelps, it was the open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison signed by over 6000 registered Australian doctors to remove the remaining 80 children at the time due to health concerns that gained significant public interest. The British Journal of General practice concludes that this was a decisive turning point, in which was nevertheless inevitable as “Any state that crushes medical ethics crushes it for us all. 

Alone, we are exposed, but as a profession we can be formidable. This battle is for all of us.” (Lowth 2017, para. 9). This exemplifies a key factor in civic participation, in which Sampson concludes that “conjoint capability for action” (Sampson et al. 2005 p. 676) can bring people together for change. This was seen by groups supporting The Bill including national organisations like Doctors Make Change, #KidsoffNauru, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre as well as international ones including Me?decins Sans Frontie?res (Doctors Without Boarders) that lead to the last four children being transferred from Nauru on the 28 February 2019. Those for ending offshore detention were primarily motivated by Australia’s agreeance and consequent violation of the Convention on the Rights on the Rights of the Child, an international document that states the minimum standards for the protection of children. As a result, a national inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention in 2014 was launched. Its report The Forgotten Children (2014) that published findings on the effect of abuse of children in detention. Since announced, the inquiry has seen changes made in Government policy and exemplifies that when realising a common purpose, particularly relating to injustice, the public can unite together as networked individuals to produce political change (Kluver & Soon 2014).

Ultimately, when considering offshore detention in regard to removing children off Nauru and Manus, civic participation played an essential role in maintenance of a democratic sphere within Australia. The media’s relentless coverage on the issue ensured an increase in public access, while social media became a platform for advocating for change with social movements and protests. Courageous individuals gave an insight into varying responses that linked neighbourhood issues to a broader social problem of injustice that opened the eyes of many Australians. Furthermore, groups expanded on these individual responses, with their collective emergence forming the collective identity of high percentage of the Australian public. Therefore, with a combination of these factors, the passing of amendments, legal legislation and national inquiries into the matter were successful in removing the children.

The widespread call for government action was the basis of civic participation for removing all children from Manus and Nauru. However, rhetoric of the Australian government although supporting citizenship on an institutional level does not produce it on a practical one. Though all children were successfully removed, individuals and groups are continuing their advocacy on ending Offshore Detention for all refugees and asylum seekers in detention centres, such as World Vision’s Safe and Free campaign. These groups have an underlying principle being just as “Locking up kids is never the answer” (#KidsoffNauru 2018), neither is locking up an adult. 

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Nauru and Manus Offshore Detention. (2021, Dec 29). Retrieved December 4, 2022 , from

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