Searching for Safety: Australia’s Detention Camps

The rising numbers of refugee boats arriving in Australia between 1999 and 2001, approximately 9500 unauthorized boats, had begun worrying the Australian government. Tasked with addressing these concerns, the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers published a report containing short, medium and long-term solutions. The short-term solutions included establishing offshore processing “facilities” on two islands, the Republic of Nauru and Manus in Papua New Guinea.

The act of conveying asylum seekers intercepted at sea to third countries in the Pacific for their applications to be processed was first introduced by the Howard Government and implemented during 2001-2007. It got the support of both the Liberal-National government and Labor opposition at the time. In February 2008, the Rudd Government took the decision to cease the operation on the two islands and instead establish a detention camp on Christmas Island, which would remain excised from Australia’s migration zone. However, the increased boat arrivals forced the government in 2012 to reverse their decision and reintroduce the policy of transferring asylum seekers to the previous offshore camps. These camps have since been regarded as “Australia’s dumping ground for refugees”.

The Australian government’s offshore operations are highly secretive. Service providers working for the Australian government could face criminal charges and civil penalties if they disclose any information about the conditions in these camps.

According to a report for Amnesty International Australia, a 43-year-old Iraqi states:

“I have lived in war zones, with bombs and explosions. I have never experienced what I am experiencing here with the uncertainty we face. If we had died in the ocean, that would have been better.”

In August and September 2016, the Guardian newspaper published more than 2,000 leaked documents that exposed endemic and systematic abuse, predominantly of children, at the Nauru detention center. The reports included assault, sexual abuse, self-harm attempts, child abuse, poor health and living conditions and various other violations.

According to one such report, a girl was asked by a group of adults to get undressed, after which they proceeded to insert their fingers into her vagina. There were also reports of children being held by guards and threatened to be killed, as well as incidents of guards watching kids (boys and girls) showering.

The files contained 66 reports of assault on children, 30 reports of self-harm involving children and 159 reports of threatened self-harm involving children. Self-harm and suicide attempts are highly common among those who stay detained for more than 6 months due to desperateness and increased hopelessness.

In mid-2016, Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled that the Australian detention camps on their lands were illegal, and that detention breached the constitutional right of asylum seekers to personal liberty, hence the decision to shut down the camps by the 31st of August 2017.

The closure of these camps hasn’t altered the Australian government’s stance towards asylum seekers. Australian Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, thoroughly opposed the entrance of asylum seekers to Australia, giving them the option to return to their hostile countries, where they faced persecution, or resettle in Papua New Guinea, where they are exposed to all sorts of discrimination from local communities.

Far left parties such as The Greens stated their objection to the Government’s decision. Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said the reported court ruling showed Australia “has been illegally detaining refugees on Manus Island for years”.

“The [Turnbull] government has got to shut the Manus Island detention camp and bring these people here… so that they can have their claims assessed and be integrated into the community,”  she added.

The decision to shut down the detention camps was also highly influenced by Amnesty International’s report released after a shooting incident when violence erupted between the locals and the refugees. The refugees were forced to seek shelter inside the camps when locals stormed the facility with sustained gunfire. Refugee testimonies prove the involvement of the Australian navy and Papua New Guinean police in the shootings.

Following the decision to shut down these camps, the previous administration of The United States offered to resettle some of those asylum seekers. The Australia-US refugee deal was signed between the Obama and Turnbull administrations in 2016, offering refuge to up to 1250 asylum seekers, noting that more than 2000 people were still in Australian detention camps with 1783 registered as refugees. Those who are not resettled in The United States will be granted 20-year temporary visas on Nauru.  The deal has been criticized by the current US president, Donald Trump, who called it “ridiculous” and “dumb”.

In exchange, the Australian government has vowed to take refugees from a center in Costa Rica. The swap is designed to help Australia close both Manus and Nauru, which have been criticized by humanitarian organizations and the United Nations for the poor and inhuman treatment of detainees.

The US’s latest declaration that it has reached its refugee intake cap of 50,000 people for the year and the decision to accept Sudanese and Somali refugees, which contradicts with the US’s travel ban on new visa applicants, have resulted in the acceptance of 50 asylum seekers to resettle in the United States.

The resettlement process of these asylum seekers is ambiguous and their future remains uncertain, raising questions about the accountability of governments on issues of human rights and human dignity.

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Interested in development programs in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and indigenous & asylum seekers’ rights in Australia. An active member of Amnesty International Western Australia, involved in Refugee and LGBTQI campaigns. Currently studying Master of International Development, majoring in Politics and Development at the University of Western Australia, Perth.