Amicus Curiae: "Stop the Boats" – Australia's Policy Manifests in Offshore Detention Centres

Content Contributor, Chris Ryan

The Australian policy of deporting asylum seekers to offshore detention centres is part of the hardline “stop the boats” policy suite developed in 2013. This policy seeks to deter asylum seekers from seeking fufuge in Australia by informing them that they will not be resettled in Australia. The Equal Justice Project has previously reported on the “stop the boats” policy, describing it as depicting asylum seekers as enemies or threats to the Australian way of life that need to be intercepted and neutralised.

 Nauru, Manus Island, and Christmas Island (the last of which is an Australian territory) are the only three Australian offshore immigration detention centres. The island of Nauru is roughly the size of Rangitoto Island and has a population of approximately 10,000. This population lives alongside 450 inmates, 18% of whom are children. Previously the Nauru detention centre has held over 1200 inmates. Nauru has little economic activity and 80% of the country has been environmentally devastated by Australian phosphate mining. The Australian government pays the government of Nauru $1000 per refugee, per month and also buys services from companies with links to the government of Nauru.

These living conditions have long been described by inmates as “appalling” and the facility they are housed in described as “overcrowded and under resourced”. However, recent reporting by the Guardian newspaper has revealed more details about the poor conditions in which inmates on Nauru are held.

Recent revelations about the treatment of asylum seekers on Nauru

Information was leaked to the Guardian detailing incident reports made by workers of the private company who runs the Nauru detention centre. The details of these incidents provide insight into the nature of the human rights abuses which occur.

The most shocking of these incident reports are the 12 and 9 incidents which occurred in 2015 and 2014 respectively, which were classed as being in the critical risk category (warning, some of the events may be distressing to some readers). Examples of critical incidents include:

  • Serious incidences of assault, such as a report of a security guard grabbing an inmate around the throat, hitting the inmates head against the floor and then throwing a chair onto the inmate while the inmate was on the ground.
  • Inmates self-harming via swallowing rocks, cutting their wrists, attempting to hang themselves, attempting to drink cleaning fluid or insect repellent, not eating and two attempted (one successful and one unsuccessful) self-immolation attempts in a single week during May.
  • Children on the island without guardians.
  • Rape, in one case the women who was raped said, “what happened to me there [in Nauru] is what caused me to run away from Somalia”.
  • Suicide threats.

In total there were:

  • 155 incidents of threatened self-harm in 2015 and 177 in 2014.
  • 90 incidents of abusive or aggressive behaviour in 2015 and 83 in 2014.
  • 57 incidents of an assault on a minor and 45 incidents of assault in 2015 and in 2014 there were 75 incidents of fighting.

These incident reports confirm what was presented in a 2015 Australian Congressional report on the Nauru offshore detention centre, which suggested that on average there was an assault once every five days and an attempted suicide attempt every four days.

The Australian Government knew from as early as 2015 that that there had been numerous “numerous child rights violations”. For example, Amnesty International spoke to a refugee who had fled the Taliban with his children, and was now worried that his younger son would try to kill himself, as he had attempted to do so twice already. The risk of detaining children on Nauru is particularly great as the risk of harm to an inmate escalates as the length of detention is increased.

Broadspectrum, the company who runs the detention centre on Nauru, argues that it “continues to make a positive contribution to the lives of asylum seekers through our welfare-led approach to delivering services” and complies with all relevant legal requirements.

Where does this leave New Zealand?

The information leaked to the Guardian provides shocking details on the human rights atrocities occurring at offshore Australian detention centres. The impact of these revelations is immense, especially as this leaked information has been described as only the “tip of the iceberg”. In light of this, the New Zealand Government’s refusal to critique Australia’s human rights policies is increasingly untenable. This information arguably ought to make us concerned about the treatment of asylum seekers in the other Australian detention centres.

 Amnesty International has argued that the Australian government is forcing people onto island detention centres like Nauru so that it can hide what’s going on there. Certainly the $8,000 visa charge for journalists who wish to visit Nauru gives the impression that Australia doesn’t want the world to know about the conditions or the experiences of asylum seekers on Nauru. Therefore, at the very least, New Zealand ought to lobby to remove the $8,000 visa charge so that there can be increased reporting on what is happening on Nauru so as to encourage public debate both in New Zealand and Australia as to what is the appropriate way to treat asylum seekers.

It is also debatable that in light of this information, the New Zealand government is under an obligation to publicly condemn the Australian policy on asylum seekers. The UN Declaration on Human Rights, to which New Zealand is a signatory, states that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Yet New Zealand cannot consciously be a signatory to this declaration and allow Australia to treat people, who are trying to escape human rights abuses in their home country, in the way that they are treating asylum seekers in Nauru.

A further argument might be that the New Zealand government should attempt to take refugees from Nauru and resettle them here. For New Zealand to accept all of the asylum seekers on Nauru would equate to less than 50% of our annual refugee quota, and if taken in addition to the current quota, would increase the number of refugees resettled into New Zealand for 2016 to the 1500 argued for by opposition parties. The government’s current offer to accept 150 refugees from Nauru is low, and the government’s unwillingness to push the Australian government to allow it to accept any of Nauru's refugees brings into question New Zealand’s commitment to upholding human rights. The Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s suggestion that resettlement in New Zealand could be an incentive for asylum seekers to board boats is a weak justification for allowing a country with whom we have close relations to perpetuate injustices like those which are apparent on Nauru.

To stand by and do nothing to prevent human rights atrocities makes us little better than those who perpetrate those atrocities.

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