Nauru, a tiny, Pacific island nation with fewer than 10,000 people and $60 million to its name, recently found itself under cyberattack by Anonymous, the informal “hacktivist” collective best known for its raids on targets such as Paypal, the U.S. Copyright Office and the Church of Scientology.
But the weekend hack, which took down the country’s official government Web site and national Internet provider, had nothing to do with Nauru’s politics. Instead, the blows were aimed at nearby Australia and its controversial treatment of so-called boat people, the undocumented, Australia-bound asylum-seekers who pay huge sums to be smuggled across the ocean by boat.
Under current Australian immigration law, the "boat people" are routed to refugee centers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea for processing. Their wait can stretch indefinitely, and humanitarian groups have complained that asylum-seekers are kept in inhumane conditions. On Friday, frustrated refugees on Nauru rioted, destroying a new processing center and causing a reported $60 million in damages. Anonymous's cyberattack was meant as a show of solidarity, one group member told the Guardian.
But while Anonymous may prove a bit of a vexation to the Nauruan government -- as of Wednesday afternoon, its Web site was still not online -- asylum-seekers pose a much more intricate and long-term dilemma for Australia. Here's a chart showing the recent surge in seabound arrivals from abroad:
Per the Australian parliament, several thousand people try to sneak onto the mainland by boat each year. Some are caught, and some simply don’t make it. Just Tuesday night, a boat capsized off West Java, killing at least four and possibly as many as a few dozen people.
In the early 2000s, Australia hatched an unusual solution: Discourage would-be immigrants by routing them to processing centers in nearby countries. The policy doesn't sit well with some human rights groups, who note that it could encourage making the refugees as uncomfortable as possible to scare future refugees out of even trying for Australian shores.
The most recent iteration of the policy made the penalties for boat-smuggling even stricter. Now, asylum-seekers who arrive by boat can’t settle in Australia and can’t apply for their families to join them, even if the government ultimately approves their bid for refugee status. The same rules do not apply to people who arrive by plane, who also face mandatory detention, but on the Australian mainland. Australia’s official immigration Web site is pretty blunt on the subject:
Don't risk your life or waste your time or money by paying people smugglers. If you pay a people smuggler you are buying a ticket to another country. Arriving in Australia by boat means: being sent straight to Papua New Guinea for processing; being settled in Papua New Guinea, not Australia, even if you are found to be a refugee; not being reunited with family and friends in Australia.
That policy, some politicians have argued, has cut the number of boats sneaking up to Australian shores. But it has also marooned refugees in such island nations as Nauru and Papua New Guinea for months or years at a time, to the consternation of humanitarian groups and the United Nations refugee agency.
As a result, the offshore system -- sometimes called the “Pacific Solution” -- has cycled in and out of favor, expiring in early 2008 and reappearing under other names just months later. Under newly reelected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, the penalties for Australian “boat people” have become even stricter. As of July 19, even legitimate refugees will be resettled in Papua New Guinea if they come by boat and do not have the correct visa.
"The Australian government has made major changes to the way it manages asylum seekers who travel to Australia by boat," reads a government immigration brochure. "The key message to those seeking to use people smugglers to make the dangerous sea voyage to Australia is: do not get on that boat."
But in the week since that policy went into effect, it seems that Australia and its island partners have suffered penalties, as well. Friday’s riots caused physical damage equal to the entire GDP of Nauru, to say nothing of the cyberattack that followed. They have also inspired a wave of criticism from humanitarian groups and whistle-blowers who oppose the offshore program.
On Wednesday, a group of Salvation Army staff who have worked at Nauru’s detention center called the riots “inevitable” and slammed offshore processing as a “cruel and degrading policy” that stranded hundreds of refugees in appalling conditions. Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser condemned the camps as “Australian gulags.”
But despite the criticism, it seems unlikely that Australia is ready to change its policy. The last attempt to halt the offshore system ended after less than 10 months, when, after an influx of refugee boats, the government hastily reopened a detention center on Christmas Island. So, Nauru will likely rebuild its processing center and continue as planned -- presumably with better computer security this time.