On August 10th, The Guardian released 2,000 leaked incident reports from Australia’s detention camp for asylum seekers on the remote Pacific island of Nauru (1). Many prisoners on the island are refugees who were transferred there after they arrived by boat to Australia. The Australian government opened Nauru, along with another camp on Manus Island, as a way to deter asylum seekers from attempting a dangerous voyage to Australia by sea and to make clear they will not be settled in Australia.
The Nauru files, which total more than 8,000 pages, detail the assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm attempts, child abuse, and contemptible living conditions endured by those in detention (2). More than half of the 2,116 reports involve children, although children made up only about 18% of those in detention on Nauru during the time covered by the reports (3). Verbally abused by security guards on a daily basis, children are growing up at these camps with their dreams of a better life forgotten. Traumatized and disturbed, many detainees develop mental disorders. Seeing no hope in their situation or life, many prisoners turn to self-harm or suicide. A psychologist who worked in the center told Guardian Australia that 98% of the people he dealt with were suicidal (4). The horrible living conditions and cruelty from guards has led to desperation. Self-harm, including lip sewing, has become a way for prisoners to protest and express how voiceless and powerless they feel.
More than 100 former employees from the Nauru and Manus detention centers have signed a letter calling for detainees to be brought to Australia (5). Having seen the brutal conditions and desperation of the prisoners firsthand, the signees explain that a Parliamentary Inquiry into the situation does not go far enough and the crisis needs immediate response (6). In addition, more than 1,800 academics from universities across Australia have signed a letter to the prime minister calling for an end to offshore processing, boat turn backs, and mandatory detention (7). The letter also argues Australia must work with other states in the Asia-Pacific region to create a regional refugee resettlement framework based on equity, capacity, and responsibility (8). The academics explained the need for a national policy summit to bring together asylum seekers, advocates, policy experts, community representatives, and politicians from all parties to create “a more just and humane approach to refugees” (9).
The publication of the Nauru files has also led to international outcry. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, delivered a scornful assessment of Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva (10). The statement condemned the hostile treatment of these men, women, and children, and added that Australia’s cruel deterrence policies have set a pitiful benchmark for its regional neighbors (11). As the Australian government claimed no abuse had been happening, Amnesty International accused Australia of a "mass cover-up” (12). Amnesty International called for the end of offshore processing and immediate resettlement of all refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island (13). They also explained the need of prisoners to be given medical and psychological support as many have been driven to the brink of a physical or mental breakdown by their treatment on Nauru (14). Additionally, journalists and people all over the world have spoken out about this human rights violation. The recent #LetThemStay campaign expressed the public opinion that the camps were fundamentally wrong and cruel.
Despite this, Australia’s minister for immigration and border protection, Peter Dutton, said the country’s refusal to accept asylum seekers who try to reach its shores by boat will not change (15). Leaders of Australia’s governing parties have said the country’s zero-tolerance policy has created a steady decrease in the number of asylum seekers attempting to reach their shores, and the officials have shown few signs of wanting to change the policy (16). Although it is understandable that they would not want people dying by boat in their attempt to seek asylum, this policy is misled, as it seeks to end human suffering by just resorting to another form of human suffering.
Yet, public pressure resulting from the release of the Nauru files has caused the Papua New Guinea government to announce it will close its offshore detention center on Manus Island. This announcement came less than a day after former and current staff members denounced the camps.
"Both Papua New Guinea and Australia are in agreement that the center is to be closed," Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said on Facebook (17).
Unfortunately, with no timeline, the closure will not be rushed, and no one from the camps will be settled in Australia. Additionally, only the Manus Island center is scheduled to be closed, while the Nauru center remains open.
Although there has yet to be an announcement for the closure of the Nauru center, it is likely to come soon. This prediction is likely not only based upon widespread criticism of the camp and the closure of the Manus Island center, but also because Ferrovial, the Spanish multinational that runs the camps on Nauru and Manus, does not want to continue when its current contract expires (18). Profiting from human suffering has both hurt the company's reputation and has potential legal consequences. Ferrovial’s financial stakeholders have also faced criticism as a recent report released by the Human Rights Law Centre and GetUp’s No Business in Abuse campaign reveals the global banks and corporate investors linked to the camps and calls on them to take immediate action to end the business relationships that associate them with human rights abuse (19). The Australian government’s efforts to extend the contract despite Ferrovial’s indication that it does not want to continue suggests that there are not contractors lined up to fill Ferrovial’s position.
Even though there is hope that the Nauru detention camp will eventually close, the Australian government needs to be held accountable and create immediate policy change. Enough lives have been irrevocably damaged and the denial of the abuse can no longer continue. Using costly and cruel measures to try and stop migration is inhumane and misguided. These camps not only are fundamentally wrong and cruel, but also violate international law. Built on the desire for political expediency, the offshore camps were never a long-term solution. The Australian government needs to create humane policy alternatives that include thoughtful refugee resettlement reform. Australia’s international reputation has been extremely damaged thanks to this gross human rights injustice. Nauru needs to close.
(1) Farrell, Paul, Nick Evershed, and Helen Davidson. "The Nauru Files: Cache of 2,000 Leaked Reports Reveal Scale of Abuse of Children in Australian Offshore Detention." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 10 Aug. 2016. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.
(4) Davidson, Helen, and Ben Doherty. "More than 100 Current and Former Nauru and Manus Staff Call for Detention Centres to Close." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 16 Aug. 2016. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.
(10) Webb, Daniel. "UN Human Rights Chief Condemns Australian Government's "hostility and Contempt" towards Refugees | Human Rights Law Centre." Human Rights Law Centre. Human Rights Law Centre, 16 June 2015. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.
(12) "Australia: Reaction to The Guardian's Damning 'Nauru Files' on Refugee Abuse." Amnesty International. Amnesty International, 09 Aug. 2016. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.
(15) Cole, Brett. "Australia Will Close Detention Center on Manus Island, but Still Won’t Accept Asylum Seekers." The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 Aug. 2016. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.
(17) Westcott, Ben, Judy Kwon, and Hilary Whiteman. "Australia to Close Manus Island Refugee Detention Center." CNN. Cable News Network, 17 Aug. 2016. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.
(18) Ball, Rachel, and Daniel Webb. "Offshore Detention Was Destined to Fail. The Collapse Might Be Closer than You Think | Rachel Ball and Daniel Webb." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 08 Aug. 2016. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.
Image: © David Hewison | Dreamstime.com - Free Refugee Rally - Don't Send Them Back!
Erin is from Chicago, a junior at USC and plans on graduating in May 2018. She is a political science major with minors in psychology and business law, currently studying abroad at the University of Cape Town.