Last week, the Australian High Court decided that the country’s controversial offshore detention policy was legal.
Under the policy, illegal immigrants arriving via boat are detained and sent to processing centers on the island of Nauru and also in Papua New Guinea. Those judged to be legitimate asylum seekers are resettled on Nauru or Papua New Guinea (not Australia), per Australian agreements with those nations.
The issue of asylum seekers has become both a political football drawn harsh criticism by human rights groups. In late January, as the High Court’s decision loomed, Human Rights Watch released its World Report 2016. Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director said in a press release, “Australia needs to seriously rethink its abusive refugee policies and take steps to restore its international standing as a rights-respecting country.”
As reported by the Canberra Times, the court’s decision “clears the way for the government to return about 250 asylum seekers in Australia, including 37 babies, to Nauru.” The more than 200 asylum seekers had been transferred to Australia, for medical treatment, in some cases, terminal illnesses. According to The Guardian, “Out of this group 33 are babies who were born in Australia to asylum seeker mothers. They have never been to Nauru.”
Daniel Webb, the Human Rights Law Centre’s director of legal advocacy, said after the ruling that “legality is one thing. The morality is another.” He also said that among the asylum seekers in question there are at least 54 children and 12 women who “have been seriously sexually assaulted on Nauru or suffered serious sexual harassment on Nauru.” There have been repeated allegations of abuse–sexual and otherwise–at the detention centers. In November, an Iranian refugee died on Christmas Island after apparently escaping the detention camp there. A demonstration by other detainees sparked what authorities called a “major disturbance” at the center and media reported as a “riot.”
To complicate matters, however, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) apologized for a reporting error in a story regarding the alleged sexual assault of a child in detention on the island of Nauru. The error conflated two cases–one of a child “over 10” who was allegedly raped and that of a 5-year-old who “had suffered “skin-to-skin” contact with another detainee child on the island.” The age of the second child was misquoted with the details of the older in comments attributed to a Karen Zwi, the pediatrician treating the children. Zwi nonetheless stands by her original comments to ABC reports and said “I do not wish to be drawn into the age of the child concerned for confidentiality reasons but all children have a right to expect safe and nurturing environments…That is not currently happening for many children in immigration detention.”
The decision is expected to lead to the imminent deportation of the asylum seekers in question although the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Michael Pezzullo, told a Senate committee, per Radio New Zealand, “decisions on when to return the 267 asylum seekers would not be made in a ‘bulk determination.’”
Several Australian state leaders have made statements that they are willing to accept the asylum seekers in their districts. Though the focus has been on the children and families, a portion of the asylum seekers are also single men and women.
Daniel Andrews, the Premier of Victoria, wrote Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull a letter circulated on Saturday in which he writes that sending the asylum seekers back to Nauru is wrong. “Meical professionals tell us this. Humanitarian agencies tell us this. Our values tell is this, too. Sending these children and their families to Nauru is not the Australian way.” He goes on to say, “Victoria will accept full responsibility for all of these children and their families, including the provision of housing, health, education, and welfare services.” Andrews is not alone in his offer, the Premier of New South Wales, Mike Baird, backed the letter, saying “The same impulse has driven us to work cooperatively with the commonwealth to resettle an additional intake of refugees in NSW following the recent turmoil in Syria, which is where our focus remains…If the PM has any additional requests for NSW, we are prepared to help.”
After the High Court’s ruling, Turnbull said to parliament, “Our commitment today is simply this: the people smugglers will not prevail over our sovereignty. Our borders are secure. The line has to be drawn somewhere and it is drawn at our border.”