Hiding Abuse Offshore: Australia’s Harmful Refugee Policy

By Inka Sklodowska Boehm, Government Relations & Advocacy Intern, Amnesty International USA

Hidden away on the Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru lies Australia’s worst-kept secret. Almost 700 refugees and asylum-seekersfrom regions throughout Asia and the Middle East have been cut off on their journey to Australia and held in offshore detention units. In 2016, the Regional Processing Centre on Manus Island was ruled by the High Court of Australia as being part of an unconstitutional and “inherently abusive” policy. Two years later, the abuse remains.

What is happening to whom?

Around 2,000 individuals seeking refuge from the persecution, torture, and violence found in their home countries are being indefinitely detained offshore of their hoped for or final destination. Traveling across the Indian Ocean in an array of vessels, they intended to reach Australia, but were instead intercepted and redirected by Australian officials to offshore detention units on Nauru, Christmas Island, and Manus Island. Even after the court ruling on Manus, which is part of Papua New Guinea, the Australian government continued to violate basic human rights by withdrawing all support services for the detention center, in a cruel effort to force those remaining into other transit centers, including a recently constructed one in Lorengau, a harbor town on Manus.

As Amnesty International’s January report Punishment not Protectionreveals, the refugees feared increased instances of violence resulting from being detained closer to the civilian population. Rubani, a refugee from Somalia, told Amnesty International how his friend, a fellow Somali, was brutally beaten by locals on Manus Island. Transferred to Port Moresby for medical treatment, the friend was kept in isolation and then sent back to Nairobi with two doctors. Rubani has not heard anything since.

Looking at refugees who had willingly moved and been attacked verified these concerns. They were aware that refugees who had willingly moved had been attacked by local community members; they protested their transfer, fearful the same would happen to them.The Australian government responded by cutting power, water, food, and medical supplies from flowing into the camp.

Finally, in late November 2017, Papua New Guinea police and immigration officials armed themselves with sticks and knives and attacked the camp. They dragged the refugees onto buses waiting to take them to centers that were still under construction and lacked general amenities. These centers are more exposed to the civilian population, further exposing refugees to potential harm at the hands of community members. Those on Nauru, the other island detaining refugees and asylum-seekers, do not fare much better, with similar threats of violence and sexual assaults. During one conversation with refugees on Manus Island on the potential of moving to Nauru, one stated, ““Nauru is not an option. We are in prison. They will move us from one prison to another.”

What is the US doing?

The list of abuses that these refugees have endured goes on, despite court rulings and international pressure. Under the Obama Administration, Australia brokered a dealin which the US agreed to resettle a number of refugees from the offshore detention camps, in exchange for Australia accepting Central American refugees whose cases were being processed in Costa Rica. Despite Trump disliking this deal, his administration has upheld it — to an extent. Like all refugees, those who hope to come to the US from Australia must undergo an “extreme vetting” process, which has effectively stalled refugee admissions processing and lacks transparency. It also disproportionately keeps out refugees from Muslim-majority countries. Most Nauru refugees who hail from Iran will not pass through the US’ drastically increased vetting procedures. Additionally, Australian officials have been telling refugees the only means of getting in on the US deal is if they agree to separate from their families.

Is what’s happening legal?

No. The inherent and systematic abuse of refugees on Nauru and Manus Island is clear. People are being punished for seeking asylum, a universal human right according to Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Australian government has declared several possibilities as viable for both its asylum-seekers and refugees: returning to their country of origin, go to or remain on Nauru, or apply for resettlement to the US. However, none of these are tenable under the current circumstances. The first violates international law by forcing refugees to return to the very conditions that caused them to flee in the first place. Option two is unsafe and unfit for refugees, serving as punishment for those seeking asylum. Finally, option three is through a program that only accepts 1,250 individuals, at most, and discriminates against certain countries of origin. International human rights law sees these ‘options’ as blatant abuse of individuals seeking protection and forces them into a catch 22.

Conditions on Nauru continue to worsen, as self-harm has become prevalent amongst refugees. Children in particular are among those suffering from the increasingly urgent mental health crisisthat continues to make headlines. A recent blow came at the start of this month, when Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) was forced to leave the island, effectively terminating their much-needed mental health services. Amnesty International responded to the ousting, saying “Today the world learned first-hand, from medical experts, exactly how wretched the situation is.

What can be done about Nauru?

There are alternatives to those dead-ends the Australian government supports. As Amnesty International stated in its recent open letter to the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders, third party countries have expressed willingness to resettle refugees from Manus and Nauru. A recent offer from New Zealand to receive 150 refugees per year has been shut down by the Australian government. By reconsidering the incorporation of humanitarian-based strategies, including stopping its illegal offshore processing, and by safely transferring refugees to Australia or a safe third country, the Australian government could put an end to the abuses faced by refugees. Additionally, Australia can assist Papua New Guinea and Nauru to ensure those still offshore have access to resources for both physical and mental wellbeing.

What can you do?

By educating yourself and others, you can help maintain international pressure on the Australian government and support safe third countries’ offers. Call on the Australian Embassy through Amnesty International’s petition, and contact your elected representatives to work towards improved refugee resettlement policies in the US. Join theI Welcome campaign, to find out just exactly how much you can do for refugees.

We've been fighting the bad guys since 1961 - you can join us! Official Amnesty International USA profile.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store