Signatories to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees are obligated to assist asylum seekers or refugees who ask for help. But that is not what is happening in Australia. The country has refused to consider any asylum seeker who arrives by boat for settlement. Instead, these individuals are held indefinitely in offshore processing centers; in recent years, human rights groups have documented systemic abuses at these sites.
“I have to say, I’m proud to be Australian,” said Jennifer Robinson, a civil liberties barrister, on Thursday afternoon at the Women in the World Summit. “But this policy is shaming for all Australians.… Our children and our grandchildren will ask us: How could we have been so cruel to people seeking our protection?”
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Refugees and asylum seekers who arrive by boat are held in two offshore facilities: Nauru and Manus Island. Decimated by destructive phosphate mining, Nauru, a small Pacific island state, is a dire landing spot for those hoping for a better life. Manus, which is part of Papua New Guinea, is just as bleak. It is estimated that there are close to 2,000 asylum seekers currently living on the islands — many of whom have been awaiting resettlement for years. “It is appropriate to use the word Guantanamo,” said Robinson. “Yet for Australia, we’re not locking up alleged terrorists – we’re locking up people fleeing persecution and seeking our protection.”
Conditions on Manus are akin to torture, according to the United Nations. Human Rights Watch has similarly documented abuses, including the denial of healthcare and worrying levels of neglect. Alanna Maycock, a clinical nurse consultant, has seen the situation firsthand while working on Nauru. She described a brutal scene to the Women in the World Summit. “What you see when you get there is high rise fences, barbed wire, rows and rows of tents,” she said. “The tents are moldy, they’re very close together. There’s no privacy.”
The shower blocks lack doors, she reported, “so women have to stand in these showers [and] wash themselves and their babies in front of male guards.”
Living in these conditions can yield lasting scars, particularly for young people. Viktoria Vibhakar, a PhD researcher in child stress who has spent time on Nauru, told the Women in the World Summit that trauma is rampant. “Detention causes harm,” she said. “We have more than a decade of medical research substantiating that detention itself is traumatic for children.”
Children aren’t the only ones living with trauma. Some detained asylum seekers have self-harmed by swallowing pills, nails or washing detergent. Others have set themselves on fire. “My job changed from promoting the wellbeing of children to convincing people to stay alive,” Vibhakar said.
The Australian government, and their island counterparts, have gone to great lengths to try to stem the flow of information from the detention facilities. In 2014, the cost of journalism visas to Nauru suddenly increased from $200 to $8000 — a move that some of speculated was an effort to deter reporting. A year later, in response to a startling dispatches by health professionals about conditions, the Australian government implemented the Border Force Act, which makes it illegal for government contractors to publically speak about their experiences in the centers. Violation of the act is punishable by two years in prison. (Australia has yet to prosecute anybody under the act.)
Call to action
Most Australians remain supportive of the government’s actions, though Robinson believes this can be attributed to ignorance: “I don’t know believe that any right-thinking Australian can hear these stories, and know it’s happening, and think it’s ok.”
The panelists, however, hope the issue resonates beyond Australia, particularly in light of recent efforts in the United States to curb immigration. “I’m asking America and the international community not to make the same mistakes Australia is making,” Maycock told the audience.
“All of us need to take responsibility for looking after refugees,” Robinson added. She encouraged the Summit participants to do what they can to shame the Australian government, which is highly sensitive about its international image. “I think that we can change it,” she said. “I think that we can close these camps.”
Additional reporting by Laura Macomber.
*This article has been updated to correct a quote that was misattributed in an earlier version.