One of the most miserable places in the world is a prison camp on the pacific island of Nauru. Fifteen percent of the population of the camp have either considered or attempted self-harm suicide, including children as young as nine. Prisoners suffer from shortages of water and living space, restricted access to medical care, and physical and sexual abuse by the guards that watch over them. What crime have these prisoners committed to end up here? None, other than fleeing persecution in their homelands in search of a better life. Yet Australia, these migrants’ destination, has chosen to detain them on this remote island prison.
Over the past decade, there has been a rising trend of using detention in miserable conditions as a deterrent to stop immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from migrating to a given nation. The practice has faced widespread condemnation from international organizations like the United Nations and from human rights groups. According to Amnesty International, “The conditions on Nauru—refugees’ severe mental anguish, the intentional nature of the system, and the fact that the goal of offshore processing is to intimidate or coerce people to achieve a specific outcome—amounts to torture.” Despite condemnation, the Australian model of punishing migrants has only become more entrenched in the Australian political system, and has been influential on other countries looking for ways to stem the flow of desperate migrants.
The refugee camps set up by Australia on the nearby islands of Nauru and Manus are a bipartisan project. The first iteration of the camps started in 2001, when the Australian government refused to resettle a group of four hundred Afghan refugees who were fleeing religious persecution. The right-wing Liberal National coalition government established the island facilities, which soon became a stopping point for all asylum seekers coming to Australia. The early camps were an administrative quagmire, with shortages of living space and water, leading to accusations from international observers that the government was intentionally imposing harsh conditions to discourage asylum seekers. Despite the harsh conditions imposed, the government eventually found the vast majority of detainees to be legitimate refugees, and resettled them in Australia. When the camps were winding down in 2007, the entire facility, along with hundreds of salaried staff members, hosted only two detainees, a pair of Iraqi men who were soon found to be legitimate refugees and resettled.
The left-wing Labour government, who had once condemned the camps as “a cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful exercise” reopened them in 2012, and spent billions of dollars to reconstruct them. With the Liberal-National coalition now returned to power, the facilities have remained a cornerstone of Australian immigration policy. In this more recent iteration, however, politicians have been more wary of keeping the detention facilities out of the news, after reports of bad conditions in the first camps led to their unpopularity. In 2015 the government passed a bill that would jail anyone who makes an “unauthorized disclosure” about the camps for up to two years. The press is denied any access to the island, as are lawyers seeking to help refugees navigate Australia’s complex immigration system.
Conditions in Nauru and Manus are awful. Human rights groups in 2016 obtained three years of incident reports, documents written by the private security guards that watch over detainees in the Nauru facility. They reveal a long list of incidents, ranging from physical violence to sexual assault, often perpetrated by security personnel against detainees. Overwhelmingly, through, the documents detail suicide attempts and threats to self-harm. In a two-year period, they record over three hundred separate threats of self-harm, including both adults and children, and sometimes even adults threatening their children’s lives. In one incident, a pregnant woman, worried because the Nauru detention center does not have the facilities to properly perform a Cesarean section, details to a social worker her plan to cut her own stomach open with a razor, and then use that razor to cut her child in half. “I will not raise another child on Nauru,” she said, according to the file. The report, which is labelled as a “minor incident,” concludes by stating that the woman was told that she would be having her child on Nauru.
Sexual abuse on the island is also common. An open letter released by former employees of the Nauru detention facility claims that the government knew of sexual abuse of women and children by employees of the detention center for seventeen months before the letter was written, and yet the government took no action to stop the abuse. Despite reports of these incidents reaching as high as the desk of Scott Morrison, the former immigration minister, the victims of sexual abuse were kept in the same facilities where they were victimized and continued to be victimized for months after the abuse was reported.
The Moss Report, an investigation commissioned by the Australian government, corroborated rumors that guards regularly abuse their power for sexual favors. It uncovered reports of widespread sexual harassment, most of which was never investigated, including the trade of cigarettes and marijuana for sex. Both were banned in the facility at the time, and both were used at times as currency between detainees, as well as by detainees to self-medicate psychological trauma. The report raises concerns that employees got their sexual victims addicted to these drugs in order to have greater leverage over them in the future.
Perhaps the most striking revelation from the Moss Report is that despite the awful reports that have been uncovered, many detainees do not have any interest in reporting cases of abuse against them. According to the report, “[. . .] transferees also said that they were concerned that making a complaint could negatively impact the resolution of their asylum claims.” On the other hand, the report says, “in some cases, transferees told the review that they had not reported particular incidents because they had lost confidence that anything would be done about their complaints.”
Detainees at the camps have not accepted abuse passively, however. In 2013, they sparked a riot, injuring camp guards and setting 95 percent of the camp alight. In year since then, self-harm has become more and more common not only as a sign of despair, but one of protest. In a protest in front of UN officials in 2016, one refugee set himself alight, a horrific protest that was captured on a cellphone video. The attention given to this event had led to “up to 50” attempts at imitation across the island. Other protests include a group of forty men sewing their lips together, as well as others who swallowed razors or washing powder.
The Australian government reacted to the riot and similar protests by blaming NGO workers, insisting that in response to one report of abuse that “it was clear these children were coached.” According to the Moss report mentioned above, leadership within the camps extensively investigated NGO workers, though they did not find any evidence that any NGO worker had encouraged protests. Ten NGO workers were fired, despite an admission that the protests that workers were accused of fomenting “would have happened anyway.”
The Australian government has also tried to frame the detainees as leeches on the system. One of the few ways off the island is to need serious medical attention which the island facilities cannot supply. The Australian government has attempted to block many such transfers, but the most dire cases are inevitably given access to Australian hospitals. Immigration minister Peter Dutton said in a radio interview that “this is ripping the system off.” Dutton was particularly concerned with the housing stipend given to refugees brought over to Australia, many of whom are not able to work for medical reasons. “We've given notice to almost 60 of them to say that the game is up and we aren't going to provide you with the housing, the welfare will stop,” Dutton said. He also admits, however, that the stipend “is provided because it's cheaper ultimately than keeping people in detention.”
Dutton also explained the rationale behind the government’s strictness for granting medical transfers. When detainees arrive in Australia, they are often able to access legal resources that they couldn’t get on the island. Though laws exist in Australia to protect detainees from arbitrary behavior by the government, in Dutton’s words, “fight them in the courts and it is incredibly frustrating [. . .] and it costs the taxpayer tens of millions of dollars to defend these actions each year.” Thus the government seeks to keep detainees on the island detention centers, where lawyers are not allowed, in order to prevent them from seeking any legal recourse against government actions. If the government had to defend every detention in court, the system would be even more expensive and potentially unsustainable.
Australia this year ascends to a seat on the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, a seat they have campaigned for the last three years. Their first week on the council was marred by the release of a U.N. report on international migration policies, led by Nils Melzer, the UNation’s special rapporteur on torture. In the report, detention used to deter migration is specifically mentioned:
For example, States increasingly subject migrants to unnecessary, disproportionate
and deliberately harsh reception conditions designed to coerce them to "voluntarily" return to their country of origin, regardless of their [international law requirement that migrants are not deported back to dangerous places]. This may include measures such as the criminalisation, isolation and detention of irregular migrants, the deprivation of medical care, public services and adequate living conditions, the deliberate separation of family members, and the denial or excessive prolongation of status determination or habeas corpus proceedings.
Another U.N. body, the Arbitrary Detention Working Group, has issued five separate rulings against Australian detention policy. The most egregious case the working group discussed was the detention of Mohammed Naim Amiri, a refugee from the Taliban, who was detained for seven years without legal justification. The working group noted that even the Australian Human Rights Commission, a body of the Australian government, had held that his detainment was unlawful. Australia has repeatedly failed to sufficiently cooperate with such investigations.
The Australian government has also refused to sign the United Nations Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, objection to provisions that require that “decisions to detain are based on law, are proportionate, have a legitimate purpose, and are taken on an individual basis, in full compliance with due process and procedural safeguards, and that immigration detention is not promoted as a deterrent or used as a form of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment to migrants, in accordance with international human rights law.”
Peter Dutton, currently the government’s Home Affairs Minister, told Sydney Radio 2GB “we’re not going to sign any document that’s not in our national interest and it’s not in our national interest to sign our border protection policy over to the UN.” Echoing language that has been used by Brexit campaigners and eurosceptic politicians across Europe, Dutton said, “We’re not going to surrender our sovereignty—I’m not going to allow unelected bodies dictate to us, to the Australian people. [. . .] We’re not going to sign a deal that sacrifices anything in terms of our border protection policies. [. . .] We’ve fought hard for them.”
The Obama administration attempted to resolve the problem in a different way. In November of 2016, they reached a deal with the Australian government to move some refugees from Australian island camps to American soil, where they could be resettled in regular order. The deal came under fire from President Trump due to perceived concerns over safety. Despite early criticism, Trump did let the deal go through, with fifty refugees accepted into American hands, out of the hundreds remaining on each island. The agreement allowed up to 1,250 people to be moved to the United States, although the government exercised their discretion to take less.
What’s telling is the language in which Trump discussed the deal. In a phone call with Australian President Malcolm Turnbull last year, Trump worried that migrants brought back to the United States might become terrorists. To assuage these fears, Turnbull admitted to Trump that he didn’t believe that anyone held on the island actually posed a security risk.
“It is not because they are bad people,” Turnbull said. "It is because in order to stop people smugglers, we had to deprive them of the product. So we said if you try to come to Australia by boat, even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Noble [sic] Prize winning genius, we will not let you in.”
“That is a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than I am,” Trump said.
The Australian public remains divided on whether these camps should continue, with a 2017 poll finding a fifty/fifty split. The ruling coalition supports the camps in full, while the Labour party that forms the opposition treads a careful line. Both parties have agreed that though the vast majority of offshore detainees were legitimate refugees, because they arrived by boat, they would never be resettled in Australia. Although the Labor party criticizes the camps, they point to the promise of “third party agreements” that would see refugees sent away to Australia’s poorer neighbors (New Zealand has offered to take some refugees, but the offer has been refused, as refugees given New Zealand citizenship would legally be able to immigrate to Australia).
Some of the refugees have been expelled from the detention centers and have entered the communities around the detention centers on the islands of Manus and Nauru. However, many refugees have found life even more difficult outside of detention: the island communities they are released into shun them and they are regularly beaten and robbed by the police. A group of six hundred men expelled from the Manus detention center refused to leave even as the government cut off their food, power, and water.According to Amnesty International’s Kate Schuetze, these resettlements are sometimes “moving them from one prison to another”—the government of Papua New Guinea often takes custody of refugees coming out of the detention centers. So, the Australian government manages to wipe their hands of the refugees without actually giving them any refuge from their awful conditions.
Meanwhile, the politicians closely tied to the camps have been rewarded. Peter Dutton, the immigration minister from 2014 to 2017, was popular enough in 2018 that he threatened party leader Malcolm Turnbull in a 2018 leadership contest. Although he narrowly lost, Dutton’s campaign to paint Turnbull as a moderate who was too soft on issues like immigration was successful. Turnbull was replaced by Scott Morrison, another former immigration minister who initiated Australia’s current asylum detention policy. As Prime Minister, Morrison immediately moved to give Dutton a prominent place in his administration as Minister for Home Affairs.
Despite being painted as a moderate on immigration, Turnbull often defended a hard line on immigration during his term in office. Turnbull pointed to Australia’s relatively open policy towards normal immigration, and the lack of anti-immigrant sentiments in the country. Speaking on a radio program, Turnbull said, “The reason we are able to have such a generous humanitarian program and are able to integrate and settle refugees well in Australia, in contrast to other countries, is because we decide which refugees come to Australia and we are able to manage the integrity of our borders.”
Turnbull’s words echo some truths about Australia's unique openness to migration. 28 percent of Australia’s population is foreign-born, a much higher share of population than similar countries like Canada and the United States. At the same time, more Australians want an increase in immigration than a decrease, and anti-immigrant sentiment has been on the decline for more than a decade.
As refugees have become a greater issue of concern in Europe and the English-speaking world, political parties have faced a similar dilemma: allow for compromises with immigration hardlines, or lock them out of the political system? In many countries in Europe, the major parties have rejected harsh moves on immigration, and faced rogue parties like UKIP, Lega Nord, and the AfD, some of which run on explicitly racist and xenophobic messaging. Turnbull may be right that tensions over immigration can be defused by making compromises.
Yet as immigration hardliners move from partners to leaders in Australia’s leading coalition, it seems less like the Liberal party is appeasing anti-immigrant populists, and more like it is enabling them. As Turnbull walks away from the prime minister’s post in defeat, it’s worth keeping in mind the concessions both parties have made the deter asylum seekers from looking to Australian shores.
Doctor Peter Young, the chief psychiatrist at the detention facilities, spoke out in 2014 about the immense psychological damage that refugees suffer under the detention regime. In his estimation, as many as half of the detainees were suffering from a significant mental illness by the time they’d spent a year on the island. Severe mental disorders require expensive specialist treatment, and may affect patient for the rest of their lives.
“The problem is the system,” said Dr. Young. “You can’t mitigate the harm, because the system is designed to create a negative mental state. It’s designed to produce suffering. If you suffer, then it’s punishment. If you suffer, you’re more likely to agree to go back to where you came from. By reducing the suffering you’re reducing the functioning of the system and the system doesn’t want you to do that.”
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Sam Owens is a second-year Economics major. This past summer, he worked at the Immune Deficiency Foundation, a patient advocacy group for individuals with primary immune deficiencies. On campus, he is communications director for the College Republicans, volunteers for New Americans, and participates in the Writer's Workshop.