Madeline Gleeson has read more pages of Hansard than any person should reasonably be expected to.

But not for pleasure. The lawyer and research associate at the Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law pored over the thousand or so pages for her book Offshore: Behind the wire on Manus and Nauru.

Gleeson had already trawled myriad government and Department of Immigration interviews and media releases, media reports and official inquiries, and interviewed sources to build a picture of what had been happening inside the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

The Hansard search was a bid to understand the logic behind the policy. She found none.

“I kept going back further and further to find this policy’s purpose,” Gleeson says. “There is yet to be one government that has thought through this policy to the end. There’s never been an answer to where these people are supposed to go when they are found to be refugees.”

The book is a comprehensive – and at times confronting – account of what life has been like inside the centres on Manus Island and Nauru since offshore processing was resurrected by the Gillard government in 2012.

Gleeson wanted to move beyond the rhetoric to present a factual account of what has happened on Manus and Nauru.

“I want this book to help Australians recognise how spin is being used, to recognise that you can’t assume a policy has been properly thought through,” she says.

There is yet to be one government that has thought through this policy to the end.

The seeds of the book were sown as Gleeson worked on her Masters in International Law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva from 2012 to 2014.

“My Masters thesis was on Australia’s state responsibility for offshore processing, so from the day that policy was announced, my research began,” she says.

Even then, Gleeson was struck by the secrecy that shrouded offshore processing. “I wanted to have conversations about the legal question of state responsibility but you can’t even start that if you don’t know what’s happening there,” she says.


When Gleeson was growing up, her family were always conscious of issues of social justice and fairness and she had a strong interest in immigration issues and refugees, spending her Year 10 work experience placement at an asylum seeker centre in Surry Hills, in inner city Sydney.

After completing a Bachelor in International Studies and Bachelor of Laws with First Class Honours at UNSW and working for a few years in Sydney, Gleeson spent a year in Cambodia.

“I just wanted to get out there, be on the ground doing something practical, get some experience, not just sit in Sydney and analyse things academically,” she says.

A global callout yielded an offer from Sister Denise Coghlan, an Australian nun and Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, and Gleeson spent a year there producing a guide to help international and grassroots organisations understand the relationships between various causes of displacement within Cambodia. The experience set her on a different path.

“In Cambodia, we were looking at a much more diverse range of displacement, and I absolutely got the feeling that there were greater issues than Australia’s concern with people coming by boat, especially in this region,” she says.

In 2014, Gleeson returned to Australia and the job at the Kaldor Centre, where she anticipated a relatively quiet settling in period. “But within a week, Australia announced its refugee resettlement deal with Cambodia,” she recalls.

“I had never thought my work in Cambodia would be directly relevant to Australian refugee policy and I couldn’t believe we were proposing to send refugees there who should have been our responsibility.”

Gleeson admits there are no easy solutions but says the only choice is to commit to an effective system of processing asylum seekers.

“We need to have this discussion, and a core focus of the Kaldor Centre’s work is figuring out the nuts and bolts required to achieve that effective system,” she says. “But what we really need is an Australian government committed to investigating the options, building relationships in the region to make it happen, and investing in the research.”                                     

Offshore: Behind the wire on Manus and Nauru is published by NewSouth.


A refugee wanders through the rows of temporary tents in the detention centre on Nauru. Photo: Angela Wylie/Fairfax Media

Single refugee women knew they were easy prey

All refugees released from detention struggled with the various challenges of settlement on Nauru, but one group in particular was considered “a separate high-risk class of refugee”. Single refugee women knew they were easy prey. Inside the centre they had faced harassment and assault, but outside they felt no safer. Now they were completely unprotected, living in the open alongside the men who had threatened them inside the Refugee Processing Centre (RPC) (staff and other refugees), as well as the broader Nauruan male population. As more young women were released from the RPC, rumours of rape and menacing behaviour circulated.

On Christmas night 2014, a group of 11 Somali women broke their silence in a series of covert interviews with journalist Karl Mathiesen, after he slipped past a sleeping guard into a room in their settlement camp. These interviews would offer one of the first insights into the dangers faced on Nauru by women who had travelled alone to Australia seeking asylum.

These women lived at Anibare camp, on the east coast of the island. One woman, Hawo, spoke of how guards had tried to bargain with her inside the RPC, offering to bring her basic necessities and saying, “When you get accepted as a refugee you’re going to have sex with me and I’m going to enjoy with you.” Now that she was out, she was constantly fearful of men making good on this threat.

She recounted two incidents from the few days before her interview.

“Three days ago I was going to get my financial support. There was a motorcycle going along the road and he grabbed me and threw me onto the road. The next day I was going to the supermarket. A guy came face to face with me and tried to grab my hands. He wanted to give me a hug. I think he wanted to rape me. I screamed and he jumped on a motorcycle.”

Annisa, another Somali woman, was also no stranger to violence. In her life before Australia and Nauru her husband had been killed, her infant son had been taken away from her, and she had been held prisoner for five years by the Al-Shabaab militia. Now, in the Anibare camp, Annisa and other women slept in jeans, hoping that would make it harder to be raped by the men who sneaked around the back of their houses and tapped on the windows at night. Annisa had told department officers she did not feel safe on Nauru and asked to be returned to the RPC, but there was no way back in.

A third woman, Majma, said she had been beaten by a Nauruan security guard who was supposed to be protecting her settlement camp, after a dispute about a fridge. The guard reportedly broke into Majma’s room, knocked her down and repeatedly punched her in the chest. Save the Children staff who witnessed the attack helped her notify the department and police, but the guard continued to work at the camp.

Ten months after his visit Mathiesen reported that at least two of the women he had met with had been raped. Sleeping in jeans had not been enough to protect them. Freedom was worth nothing if they were not safe.

– Edited extract from Offshore: Behind the wire on Manus and Nauru