After the ‘Tampa Affair’ off the coast of Australia, the Australian government reached an agreement with Nauru (population 10,000) in 2001 to institute a detention centre on the world’s smallest island state. Once established, the camp’s tents were soon overcrowded and there was a shortage of water. Slowly it was revealed that, overwhelmingly, those who had come by boat were not “queue jumpers” or criminals or terrorists (a claim regularly made by ministers, despite being refuted by the government’s own national security chief) but rather people fleeing genuine persecution and who were owed protection. As a result, most were resettled, predominantly in Australia. The Nauru detention scheme concluded in 2007 with Australia at one point paying for the massive bureaucracy of an entire incarceration centre housing just two Iraqi men, both of whom were found to be refugees who subsequently resettled.
In 2012, though, the then Labor government saw fit to reinstate detention on Nauru and subsequent governments have persisted with the policy. However, since then, information on conditions has become extremely challenging to access with journalists requiring $8000 media visas to visit the island, applications for which frequently receive no response. So it is the detainees who do what they can to communicate the horrors to which they are subjected. One young man – proven to be a genuine refugee – took the drastic step of self-immolation to draw attention to the plight of the detainees. Omid Masoumali burnt to death.
Australian government statistics as at June 2017 indicate that 371 asylum seekers are currently held in the Nauru facility, 42 of whom are children. In a 2016 report compiled by Amnesty International (‘Nauru – Island of Despair’), it is also noted that considerably more refugees live on the island outside the detention centre (at that time 749 people), having been moved from the facility once their refugee status has been verified. (As far as living conditions are concerned, it’s relevant that the habitable land area of Nauru is considerably smaller than it’s 21km2 entirety as the environmental devastation wrought by the mining industry has, in the past, led to proposals by Australia to relocate the entire Nauru population to an island off the coast of Queensland. Having been stripped of the income from phosphate mining, unemployment hit 90% and the school system collapsed entirely. So those refugees who have been moved into the community openly feel like a commodity in a ruined economy.)
Also in 2016, 2,000+ leaked incident reports from the Nauru Detention Centre laid bare the devastating trauma and abuse inflicted on those held by Australia in offshore detention. Over 51% of the formally reported incidents involved children, even though children make up only 18% of individuals held. As reported by the Guardian, the assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm attempts, child abuse and horrific living conditions endured by asylum seekers painted ‘a picture of routine dysfunction and cruelty‘.
Three months after the incident reports were leaked, the Australian government brokered a deal with the United States to ‘resettle’ an unspecified number of refugees from Nauru and Manus, later revealed to provide no certainty for any person put through that process. (More on this on the ‘Read’ page of this site.)
And in December of 2016, when Immigration Minister Peter Dutton (who has since been given a new title and extended powers) responded to questioning on the leaked reports, he chose to significantly downplay the horrific contents:
“There are some that are legitimate and there are others that aren’t, and others that have been found not to be substantiated.
“I think it’s also important to recognise that of the 2,000 reports many could include, for example, a complaint about food or a complaint about kids not going to school, a parent disciplining a child within the regional processing centre,”
HOWEVER, an official Australian Senate Inquiry into the leaked documents (by a committee with representatives from all sides of politics) held in March 2017 produced a report that directly contradicts Mr Dutton’s minimizing of the evidence. The Senate report states:
So the Australian government’s OWN Senate Inquiry has underlined that the leaked reports are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg (in direct contrast to the denigrating statements of the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection).
Despite the damning bipartisan conclusions, however, no action whatsoever has been taken either reduce the risk of abuse, harm and squalor to which asylum seekers continue to be subjected on Nauru OR take steps to alter the offshore detention policy that has been so broadly condemned globally by those at the most influential levels of human rights law.
It should be noted that the resettlement deal with the United States was thrown into doubt even before the revelations of the conversations between leaders Trump and Turnbull (described on the ‘Read’ page) when, in July 2017, US officials who has been interviewing asylum seekers on Nauru halted screening procedures and departed the island two weeks ahead of scheduled and a day after Washington said the US had reached its annual refugee intake cap. And 10 months after the deal was struck, still no one has been accepted to go to the US. So detainees’ ongoing uncertainty is being continually compounded by government strategies and processes that are clearly not focussed on the needs of those who leave their country of origin due to persecution and who are, under the UN Convention & Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, “entitled to special protection on account of their position”. It’s clear then, that the cruel nature of the punitive approach by successive Australian governments is not just inhumane, financially and logically unsound, but that it contravenes the country’s obligations as a signatory of 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol. As outlined on the ‘Read’ page, the offshore detention policy is so widely and unequivocally condemned that 17 of the world’s leading human rights lawyers have put an extensive and scathing submission to the International Criminal Court (ICC) clearly entitled “The situation in Nauru and Manus Island: Liability for Crimes Against Humanity in the Detention of Refugees and Asylum Seekers”.
But the incriminating legal document has not halted the Australian government’s approach. Deaths, child abuse, mental torment … nothing seems to make the impact that it should on any human being, let alone those who have obligations and responsibilities to protect vulnerable people and to respond to the voices of the people who voted them into office.
Even when contractors pull out after sustained human rights campaigns indicating the illegality of the existence and operations of the facility, Peter Dutton moves to shore up the widely condemned and failing policy by engaging a new engineering firm with a lucrative financial incentive. Engineering firm Canstruct are reputed to be accepting an $8 million taxpayer-funded contract to provide everything from security to food and welfare until March 2018, (with a whistleblower indicating that the Immigration Minister wants to see Canstruct operating Nauru for three years.) And with ‘offers’ open to Manus Island detainees to relocate from one prison to another, the Australian government clearly plans to continue with its torturous, illegal offshore detention program.
On 31 October 2017, Nick Martin – a senior medical officer deployed on Nauru from November 2016 to August 2017 – spoke out about his experiences on the island prison. As a surgeon lieutenant commander, he served in submarines in the Persian Gulf, took fire in Afghanistan and was deployed in Kosovo and the Balkans. But what he saw in the Australian run detention centre was “more traumatic than anything I’d seen in Afghanistan“. He alleged that patients with breast lumps, kidney stones and neurological damage were delayed diagnostic treatments; and that severely diabetic asylum seekers held within the detention regime are at risk of going blind. His claims are backed by an extensive cache of leaked documents that show that Martin’s views are widely shared by other medical practitioners on Nauru contracted by the Australian government. In one leaked email, dated May 2017, a health services manager on Nauru identified five serious cases where asylum seekers had been waiting for months beyond the medically recommended timeframes without treatment – one asylum seeker had been waiting for 12 months for medical transfer when the recommended treatment time was one month. The manager had noted “All remain symptomatic and some with symptoms worsening,” Dr Martin said that evacuation deadlines set by him and his staff set were frequently “reached and breached” by the Australian Government, which he holds ultimately responsible for the delays. “These medical delays put in place are absolutely criminal,” Dr Martin said.
Those who remained detained – who have been detained for FOUR YEARS on Nauru – recently released a statement (which can be read in full here). Every word is wrought with the erosion of hope and faith that is inevitable in those who have endured decades of victimisation. But here are just a few to urge you to continue to Email Empathy …
We have been imprisoned for four years on Nauru. We are punished for our patience and good will. If Australia won’t take us, we accept that. Let us go to a country who wants us. New Zealand wants us. Let us go there, so we can be good loyal citizens and contribute to the community and build our future. We are good people. We just want freedom in a country where we belong. …. We are human, we want to be responsible for our own lives. We cannot take this anymore, the lies and false promises are killing us and destroying our minds and souls. People are still living like animals in the camps. The conditions have made everyone sick. The mould is toxic and dangerous. … We were promised safe accommodation in the community when we became refugees. …We are not free! We live under strict, high security detention control, robbed of our civil liberties because you have no where else for us to live. … You leave us to rot, with no information, with no hope, with no future and with no freedom! We formally request that we be EVALUATED NOW! Please give us amnesty and let us go to New Zealand. Let the separated families reunite and please have some compassion for us.
In November 2017, the Guardian reported that some staff at the Nauru detention centre (case managers, sport and recreation staff, and teachers) had been deported from the island in a confusing and sudden apparent end to their employment. Some had been told in an email from a service provider that there is “no longer accommodation available in RPC1 so due to shortage some staff are being flown home temporarily”. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection would only confirm that there was “currently some movement of DIBP and contracted staff between accommodation facilities on Nauru”. There has been no further public information on the staff available since.
‘Too sick to Transfer’
In January 2018, another harrowing personal story highlighted one of the many damaging aspects of Australia’s offshore processing/detention policy.
A Rohingya man who had been on Nauru for years even though his wife and baby had been transferred to Australia was reported as being unable to be transferred to Australia because his health situation was TOO SEVERE. The policy is that anyone who is transferred to Australia for medical assistance MUST be returned to the offshore location. But the seriousness of this man’s physical and mental health indicated that he would not be fit to be sent BACK to Nauru if he was moved to Australia. So he remained as a “medical emergency“ even though the medical contractors (IHMS) employed on the island by the Australian government stated that a “recommendation for tertiary offshore care remains in place” and the Nauru hospital’s Overseas Medical Referral panel had twice approved the man for transfer to Australia for treatment. The final decision rested with the Australian Border Force, which retains ultimate control over the offshore immigration regime but a spokesperson for the ABF told the Guardian that:
“Healthcare in Nauru is the responsibility of the government of Nauru. Decisions about medical transfers of refugees are made on a case by case basis, under the government of Nauru-managed overseas medical referral program.”
Much of the above information was sourced from the following locations where more detail can be found:
AUSTRALIA: ISLAND OF DESPAIR: AUSTRALIA’S “PROCESSING” OF REFUGEES ON NAURU; 17 October 2016, Index number: ASA 12/4934/2016 –
https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa12/4934/2016/en/ or via this website
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