Amnesty says Australia ‘inflicts suffering’ on refugees to deter others

Refugee children take part in a protest in March 2015 against their resettlement on Nauru and living conditions on the island. (Credit: Amnesty International/private)

Refugees held in Australia’s offshore detention center on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru live in deplorable conditions, according to an Amnesty International report. If it sounds like old news, that’s because it is. The group’s report is the third major investigation into conditions on the island.

Australia’s successive governments have maintained a policy to detain people who illegally attempt to enter the country, and rights groups have a long history of criticizing that position. This year, two investigations shed harsh light on the conditions these people face in Nauru. The scrutiny did nothing to sway Australian policymakers. Amnesty’s report ratchets up the criticism, accusing authorities of creating a system that “amounts to torture.”

“On Nauru, the Australian government runs an open-air prison designed to inflict as much suffering as necessary to stop some of the world’s most vulnerable people from trying to find safety in Australia,” said Anna Neistat, Amnesty International’s senior director for research, in a statement. “The government of Australia has isolated vulnerable women, men and children in a remote place which they cannot leave, with the specific intention that these people should suffer. And suffer they have – it has been devastating and in some cases, irreparable.”

A report in the Guardian in August showed that the Australian government knows about conditions on the island. The report published more than 2,000 leaked incident reports from the detention center, which documented cases of child abuse, violence and self-harm carried out by refugees and asylum-seekers. The leak came months after two people held in Nauru set themselves on fire to protest the living conditions.

“This is how tired we are,” said the 23-year-old man named Omid, before setting himself on fire, in late April. “This action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it anymore.”

Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection responded to the Guardian report this week. It downplayed the reported cases of abuse and criticized the decision to publish the report, despite new analysis of the files having uncovered 19 cases of violence and sexual assault that were referred to the Nauru police. Not one led to a conviction or prosecution.

“It is clear the contention that the Nauru files represent thousands of cases of abuse of transferees and refugees cannot be supported by a review of the documents,” a department spokesperson told The Australian newspaper.

The statement and continued denials by Australian authorities stand in sharp contrast to the on-the-ground interviews conducted by Neistat for Amnesty. She interviewed 58 asylum-seekers and refugees from nine countries in July. Another 13 people who worked for or at the detention center were also interviewed for the report. Conditions are no better for the people who leave the detention centers and settle on the island.

The accounts and evidence provided, including photographs, videos and police records, show the physical and emotional abuse endured by the refugees and migrants trapped on the island. They experience abuse at the hands of local residents and endure harassment from police.

While the problem takes place on the island and is subject to local law enforcement, it is the result of a system in Australia that seeks to punish anyone who attempts to enter the country by boat illegally, the report stated. Neistat argued that there is an intent to deter people from entering Australia, and those in detention are trapped in a torturous situation.

“The Australian authorities should come to the same conclusion, shut down the ‘processing’ center on the island, and make a better use of taxpayers’ money by recognizing that every asylum-seeker and refugee on Nauru has the right to come to Australia immediately,” she said. “These people cannot wait a moment longer for a humane solution.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.