Human rights News

Australia's offshore detention program under Turnbull and Dutton: An update

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Meanwhile, in Australia's offshore detention camps, hidden from view, the Australian Government continues to perpetrate human rights abuses. ​​​​​​

Some of the children currently held on Nauru (Screenshot via Q&A)

THE REFUGEE CRISIS, which peaked in 2015, has led to an all-time high in the number of refugees and displaced people worldwide (although since 2015 the number of new refugees per year has decreased).

The Australian Government continues to support a policy of indefinite offshore detention, despite the fact that only a small portion of these refugees come to Australia. (In 2015, 9,400 refugees were recognised by Australia.) The majority of the world’s refugees come from three countries: the Syrian Arab Republic, Afghanistan and South Sudan.

Australia’s refugee intake per-capita ranks 32nd in the world. It is reported that the Australian Government will increase its annual intake of refugees to 19,000 by 2018-2019. This is a necessary move considering the recent increase in asylum seekers.

'No government can truly stand for human rights while choosing to destroy the lives of children.' 

Meanwhile, the Australian Government continues to perpetrate human rights abuses toward the asylum seekers on Manus Island, Nauru and Christmas Island. There were 1,900 asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru as of June 2018, and 304 asylum seekers on Christmas Island as of April 2018. In May 2018, there were 137 minors remaining on Nauru.

Daniel Webb of the Human Rights Law Centre recently spoke to the U.N. about the children currently detained on Nauru.

Mr Webb said:

"They are four and five-year-old kids who have never experienced a single day of freedom in their entire lives. The only world they have ever known is in a mouldy tent, behind a fence, in an island prison … No government can truly stand for human rights while choosing to destroy the lives of children. These children and their families deserve a future."

The Turnbull Government reported that the Manus Island detention centre would be closed in November last year and the asylum seekers moved to a new facility at Lorengau in Papua New Guinea. This was despite the unwillingness of the PNG Government to house the refugees in the community or to allow the detention centre to operate there.

The Turnbull Government then cut off the supply of electricity, food and water to Manus Island detention centre in attempts to close the facility, despite a lack of a suitable alternative living situation. Over six months later, the new facility remains unfinished and does not have the necessary infrastructure for people to live there.

The New Zealand Government has made a standing offer to take 150 refugees from Australia’s offshore detention centres per year, which was rejected by Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton several times. However, recently, Dutton has suggested he is considering taking up the offer provided that the asylum seekers are banned from ever coming to Australia.

The companies Ferrovial (previously Broadspectrum and Transfield) and Wilson Security, have ceased their involvement in the offshore detention facilities, due to the potential bad publicity and awareness campaigns against them. The camps are now managed by Serco, an international corporation that runs many prisons worldwide, with an annual revenue of approximately $3 billion. It operates in the defence, justice and immigration, transport, health and citizen services sectors. Running Australian offshore detention centres seems counter to Serco’s reported aims as it contributes more to injustice than justice.

The asylum seekers remain stranded in the dangerous and unhealthy conditions of offshore detention centres, which are rife with mental and physical health problems. Women and children in offshore detention centres have been physically and sexually assaulted on multiple occasions by detention centre staff. Psychiatrist and whistleblower Peter Young said that after a year in detention, around 50 per cent of asylum seekers had a "significant level disorder". There have been 12 deaths in offshore detention since the program began and four deaths in the past year.

The asylum seekers in offshore detention are continually denied adequate medical care. Dr Nick Martin, previously IHMS senior physician on Nauru, says that he and John Brayley, a former chief medical officer of the Australian Border Force, had their medical recommendations “routinely ignored” by Australian officials.

An asylum seeker with Dengue fever was left untreated until he had signs of sepsis. Another asylum seeker, Hamid Khazaei, died of sepsis on Manus Island in 2014. The Border Force Act of 2015 made whistleblowing about the affairs of the detention centres a criminal offence and has required detention centre staff to work under an oath which was not detailed in the Act.

'As a society, we will not forget what has happened here for years to come.'

According to the Australian Government, the rationale behind the imprisonment of innocent people is to deter others from seeking asylum by boat. This clearly does not, however, change the number of people who get on boats to escape a war-torn country and there is no evidence that the number of people coming to Australia by boat has decreased since the introduction of the policy. It also ignores the fact that before this policy, relatively few asylum seekers came to Australian shores, due to its distance from those countries most asylum seekers are fleeing. Australia had the capacity to resettle those asylum seekers who came here by boat, so there was no reason for the implementation of the policy, to begin with.

There remains a shroud of secrecy over operations aiming to "protect sovereign borders". What happens to the asylum seekers once the boats are turned back is unclear. However, we can assume that they would not make it back to where they came from. We only know that some of those asylum seekers end up in Australia’s offshore detention centres. 

As well as the immeasurably high human cost, the financial cost of the offshore detention program is also extremely high. The running costs for Manus Island and Nauru alone have cost Australian taxpayers $4.89 billion from 2012 to 2017, and the costs offshore immigration enforcement were estimated by Save the Children and UNICEF at up to $9.6 billion in three years. It is estimated to be around ten times cheaper to resettle the asylum seekers in the community than to continue to run these expensive detention centres.

While innocent people die in detention centres, the Turnbull Government capitalises on the fear of asylum seekers created in everyday Australians, a legacy of the Howard-era, when fear-mongering about "boat-people" was used to win votes.

Journalist and asylum seeker in Manus Island detention centre, Behrouz Boochani, writes

'Keeping us in this condition is clearly a rugged political contest within the Australian political arena.'

Sooner or later Australians will wake up to the fact that the threat of asylum seekers has been exaggerated. The Government’s future reputation is diminished with every year that they continue this offshore detention program and every death that occurs due to their abuse and negligence. As a society, we will not forget what has happened here for years to come.

One organisation helping asylum seekers in Australia’s offshore detention centres is Gifts for Manus and Nauru, which provides phone creditmaterial aid or medical support for asylum seekers and refugees on Manus and Nauru. You can support it here.

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