“The conditions on Nauru – refugees’ severe mental anguish, the intentional nature of the system, and the fact that the goal of offshore processing is to intimidate or coerce people to achieve a specific outcome – amounts to torture,” asserted Amnesty International in no uncertain terms. Its report Island of Despair was released in October, documenting investigation into Australia’s offshore processing center for asylum seekers on Nauru. In doing so, Amnesty claims that Australia “brazenly” flouts international law and keeps vulnerable people in egregious conditions where “mental illness and incidents of self-harm among refugees and asylum-seekers on Nauru are shockingly commonplace.”
“On Nauru, the Australian government runs an open-air prison designed to inflict as much suffering as necessary to stop some of the world’s most vulnerable people from trying to find safety in Australia,” wrote Amnesty’s Senior Director for Research, Anna Neistat.
Life in the Nauru Refugee Processing Center is humiliating and dehumanizing, with people being addressed by merely by their detainee identification numbers, forced to wait months for underwear or shoes, and being expelled from showers after two minutes. As previously highlighted by the Guardian’s Nauru files, physical and sexual assault of people seeking asylum is shockingly prevalent. Attacks are not only against adults – the victimization of children is frequent. Parents cannot adequately protect their kids on Nauru, even from contractors paid for by the Australian government. In one event documented by the report, a guard threw a rock at children thought to be misbehaving, chipping one child’s tooth. No consequences were ever lodged against the employee.
But it is not only inside the processing center that refugees are targets for abuse. The report documents a number of horrific cases, including a Bangladeshi man who suffered severe head trauma after locals threw a rock at his head, kicked him from his motorbike and continued to beat him on the ground. According to the report: “A young Somali woman, “Jamilah,” reported that several Nauruan men attacked her husband in March 2016, hitting him on the head with a machete – her husband needed eight stitches. The following night, a group of Nauruans tried to break into the family’s accommodation.” ABC program Four Corners aired a report days prior entitled “The Forgotten Children,” which documented the plight of children stranded on Nauru and reinforces the highly deleterious impact of detention upon the mental health of people seeking asylum.
Yet another hole broke through what Human Rights Watch calls Australia’s “wall of secrecy” this month. The immigration department announced the removal of a clause in the controversial Border Force Act, which threatened medical professionals with 2 years in prison for speaking out about the conditions imposed on people seeking asylum in offshore detention. The government backdown came only after Doctors for Refugees lodged a case in the High Court to overturn the secrecy provisions. Moreover, other staff in offshore processing centers still face lengthy jail time for whistle-blowing, including social workers, lawyers and teachers.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights has called for a full review of this “stifling” legislation. Michel Forst pointed to an “atmosphere of fear, censorship and retaliation” around discussing refugee rights in Australia because of its secrecy laws and intimidation by public officials. The Australian government again dismissed these allegations, claiming that the special rapporteur did not present a “balanced view”. Australia’s Human Rights Commission’s President, Professor Gillian Triggs, however stated that the UN’s analysis was accurate and said that the government had an “ideological objection” to advocacy.
The Australian government’s response to the horrific revelations in Amnesty International’s report was also predictably intransigent. The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has rejected the report and reiterated that the Nauru processing center was a legacy of a previous Labor government’s border policy. The immigration department issued a statement, echoing previous assertions that “Australia remains committed to regional processing and will continue to work closely with the Government of Nauru.” As with responses to prior criticism of the lack of transparency and accountability in offshore detention, the department claimed that “we welcome independent scrutiny of regional processing matters, noting that access to the Center is a matter for the Government of Nauru.” The Nauruan government has also gone on the defensive, labeling Australia’s national broadcaster an “embarrassment to journalism” after its televised report on the island’s detention center.
The latest Amnesty report is only the latest in a long line of criticisms of Australia’s border policies from the United Nations, countless states in the international community including many of Australia’s allies, civil society organizations like Save the Children, Australian academics, leading healthcare professionals and the global media. This week, Melbourne broadsheet The Age’s editorial declared that “The Age does not agree with the policy of offshore processing – there is simply no justifiable reason why people need to be treated in such an appalling and callous fashion”.
Australia’s government nonetheless remains ardently reactionary. When in 2015 a special rapporteur accused Australia of violating the torture convention in its offshore detention centers, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared that Australians were “sick of being lectured to” by the United Nations.
Listening to criticism and policy recommendations would not only benefit Australia’s international reputation, but might also help to improve the government’s professed budget crisis. Indeed, not only does Australia’s use of offshore detention come at a massive cost to human dignity, it also represents a huge expense to the Australian taxpayer. According to UNICEF, offshore detention requires $400,000 per detainee, per year, costing a total of $9.6 billion since 2013. Even Australia’s National Audit Office has criticized the fiscal waste caused by the country’s hardline border policies, issuing a report this month that highlighted the high cost of Labor’s pre-2013 election “By Boat, No Visa” campaign as an example of the need to reform such publicly funded advertising.
Australia is enthusiastically pursuing a path which erodes its international credibility and human rights record at a rate of knots, purely for the sake of parochial domestic politics. Ironically, a survey conducted by Amnesty International earlier in the year found that Australians were amongst the most welcoming in their attitudes towards refugees in the world. 7 in 10 Australians say that their government should do more to assist refugees. Yet current immigration policy does not reflect this, and given government rhetoric it looks unlikely to change drastically anytime soon.
Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser during the late 1970s is remembered as a trailblazing humanitarian leader who provided protection to tens of thousands of Indochinese refugees. Malcolm Turnbull, who has dismissed claims of abuse in Amnesty’s report as “absolutely false,” will not be treated by history so kindly.
Max Walden works for an NGO in Indonesia. He has worked with refugees in Australia and Southeast Asia for a number of years.