The Australian government is subjecting refugees and asylum seekers to an elaborate and cruel system of abuse – brazenly flouting international law – just to keep them away from its shores, a new Amnesty International report says today.
Based on months of research, including interviews with more than 100 people in Nauru and Australia, Amnesty International’s report ‘Island of Despair’ exposes the government of Australia’s policy of “processing” refugees and asylum-seekers on Nauru for what it is: a deliberate and systematic regime of neglect and cruelty.
“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,” said Anna Neistat, Amnesty International’s Senior Director for Research, one of the few people who managed to enter the remote and secretive island to investigate human rights abuses.
“The government of Australia has isolated vulnerable women, men and children in a remote place which they cannot leave, with the specific intention that these people should suffer. And suffer they have – it has been devastating and in some cases, irreparable.”
Just weeks after Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull touted his government’s policy at the UN Refugees Summit as a model to be emulated, Amnesty International’s report shows how Australia’s deterrence-focused policy is directly responsible for a shocking catalogue of human rights abuses.
“The Australian government’s policy is the exact opposite of what countries should be pursuing. It is a model that minimizes protection and maximises harm. The only direction in which Australia is leading the world on refugees is in a dangerous plunge to the bottom,” said Anna Neistat.
“Six decades ago, the government of Australia’s signature brought the Refugee Convention into force. Now, in a terrible irony, a country that owes so much to refugees is flagrantly violating international law and encouraging other countries to do the same.”
Australia has spent billions of dollars to create and maintain its inherently abusive offshore processing system. According to the Australian National Audit Office, offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea has cost more than AUS$ 573,000 per person, per year.
Much of this money has been spent on companies contracted to work on Nauru, many of whom have announced they will cease their operations on the island. Individual staff from some companies have become whistle-blowers, falling under the threat of criminal prosecution for exposing the desperate situation on Nauru.
“The Australian authorities should come to the same conclusion, shut down the so-called processing centre on the island, and make a better use of taxpayers’ money by recognizing that every asylum-seeker and refugee on Nauru has the right to come to Australia immediately. These people cannot wait a moment longer for a humane solution,” said Anna Neistat.
Punishing the victims
Refugees and asylum-seekers on Nauru have become the target of abuse by some of the local population, including by people in positions of authority. Despite credible accounts of dozens of physical attacks – including sexual assault – against refugees and asylum-seekers by local people, Amnesty International is unaware of any Nauruan citizen being held accountable.
Asylum-seekers and refugees, by contrast, have been arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned. As one service provider told Amnesty International: “Arbitrary arrests as a form of intimidation are common on Nauru.”
Hamid Reza Nadaf, an Iranian refugee with a young son, said he was arrested and jailed between 3 June and 7 September 2016, on the basis of evidence that was clearly fabricated.
His detention may have been linked to his taking photos of the Refugee Processing Centre (RPC). His eight-year-old son, who is reportedly ill with tuberculosis, was left alone at the RPC during much of the time of Nadaf’s three-month imprisonment.
The Nauruan authorities have also arrested asylum-seekers and refugees for self-harm, including in cases where being indefinitely warehoused on Nauru is precisely what led to a sharp deterioration in the person’s mental health.
“It’s a vicious trap. People in anguish attempt to end their own lives to escape it, but then find themselves behind bars, hurled into a prison within a prison,” said Anna Neistat.
Deteriorating mental health
Almost all of the people Amnesty International spoke to – including young children – suffered from poor mental health. It is undeniable that prolonged periods of indefinite detention have a direct and negative effect on people’s mental health, according to the Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.
People do not receive the care they need for mental health problems, or for many other ailments. “Laleh” – not her real name – is an Iranian woman who fled with her husband and her three-year-old daughter. Laleh told Amnesty International that she suffered depression but “they didn’t care,” she said.
Laleh’s daughter “Nahal” (not her real name) also developed health problems during the family’s 18-month stay in a tent on Nauru. After concluding that Nahal suffered from mental health problems, the doctor prescribed medication that was not suitable for children.
When Laleh and her husband raised the issue with the doctor, he swept their concerns aside. “He said ’If you don’t like it, go back to your home country’, they told Amnesty International.
“Allowing people’s mental health to deteriorate without any adequate treatment appears to be a deliberate part of the government of Australia’s deterrence policy,” said Anna Neistat.
Dr. Peter Young, former mental health director at International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), told Amnesty International that in offshore processing environments, “[e]verything became subservient to ‘stopping the boats’.”
Treatment of refugees on Nauru amounts to torture
Amnesty International found that the system to which refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru are subjected amount to torture.
The combination of refugees’ severe mental anguish, the intentionally harmful nature of the system, and the fact that the goal of offshore processing is intended to intimidate or coerce others to achieve a specific outcome, means that Australia’s offshore “processing” regime fits the definition of torture under international law.
The current Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has maintained that the government of Australia must ensure that its offshore “processing” regime is harsh.
As Communications Minister, in May 2014, he stated: “We have harsh measures (and) some would say cruel measures … [but] the fact is if you want to stop the people-smuggling business you have to be very, very tough.”
In September 2015, while admitting his concern over the conditions on Nauru, Malcolm Turnbull stated: “Now, I know that’s tough, we do have a tough border protection policy, you could say it’s a harsh policy, but it has worked.”
Although Australia does not want the full extent of the abuses on Nauru to be known, and has gone to extraordinary lengths to hide it, potential asylum-seekers must be made aware of that the consequences of trying to seek protection in Australia by sea are punitive. The “success” of border control depends on human suffering.
“The policy that the Australian government is selling to the world as a success is one that it has acknowledged to the public is cruel. This policy legitimizing systematic abuse is not only a dead end for refugees – it is also a dead end for Australia. It has earned Australia unique notoriety as a country that will do everything it can to make sure refugees don’t reach its shores and to punish people who dared to try,” said Anna Neistat.