Refugees who seek safety and opportunity in Australia often find the opposite, according to a new report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
The country has a zero tolerance policy for refugees who arrive by boat. If a group of refugees makes it to the shore in a flimsy boat, exhausted and terrified, they’ll eventually be rounded up and shipped to detention centers on the Nauru and Manus islands.
The government frames this approach as a way to deter illegal immigration, but, in reality, it just leads to the prolonged suffering of refugees who are desperately seeking asylum.
“Australia’s policy of exiling asylum seekers who arrive by boat is cruel in the extreme,” said Anna Neistat, senior director of research at Amnesty, to The New York Times. “Few other countries go to such lengths to deliberately inflict suffering on people who seek safety and freedom.”
When they get to the detention centers on Nauru, they face constant, dehumanizing abuse, according to the report, which features interviews with 84 people over 12 days. More than 1,000 refugees live on Nauru.
In essence, the Australian government is paying $900 million annually for services on the islands and this money indirectly funds widespread human rights violations, the report alleges.
The details from the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch report are startling:
- Refugees are attacked and beaten, sexually assaulted, denied adequate medical treatment, robbed, and marooned on an island with little hope for resettlement or legal representation.
- One man with diabetes lost 60 pounds from his disease, but was brushed off when seeking help from a hospital. Another woman had to give birth to a child underneath a mattress in a hospital — newborns regularly have infections on Nauru.
- Anxiety and depression are rampant and children are especially vulnerable to the effects of this miserable environment. Many women live in an endless state of fear because of sexual threats. Yet, mental health treatment is scant.
- Earlier in the year, a man and a woman on Nauru lit themselves on fire in protest. The man died and the woman survived with burns on 80% of her body. The event triggered unrest across the island.
- When a person is severely ill, they often get sent to mainland Australia for treatment because the island is ill-equipped. Then they are returned.
This state of affairs is allowed to continue because of its secrecy.
Since the detention centers exist in an almost extra-legal sense — because refugees are not citizens and the islands are not a part of Australia — the crimes go unpunished and are often unrecorded. In other words, the detention centers are funded by Australia and occupied by Australian detainees, but they do not exist within the country’s jurisdiction.
The government regularly denies requests from human rights groups and journalists to visit the island. Services on the island are carried out by third parties that are largely unaccountable because of the lack of transparency and employees are forbidden from disclosing any information about conditions.
The access gained by the two NGOs is unprecedented and could lead to action. Already, a bill is being prepared that would grant easy access for journalists to see refugees, with the understanding that increased exposure and advocacy would make permanent change inevitable.
As the number of displaced people reaches new highs around the world, the plight of refugees on Nauru is a jarring display of callousness, but it is far from the only place where refugees are abused.
The government and the service providers deny that abuses occur, but such allegations are not new. Australia’s refugee policy has been dogged by controversy for years.
“I’ve been doing this work for 15 years, covering mainly warzones and closed countries and I think I’ve seen my fair share of human rights abuses and injustice,” Neistat told The Guardian.
“But the level of secrecy and the fact that these abuses are perpetrated not in the context of a war zone, not in context of an inherently oppressive government cracking down on its citizens,” she said. “But that these abuses are perpetrated or condoned by Australia, and against the most vulnerable people, some of whom fled the most oppressive conflict areas in the world.”