Australia’s remote detention policy has developed a notorious reputation for an ‘offshore processing procedure’ that uses remote Pacific islands such as Nauru as a ‘dumping ground’ for people seeking asylum and protection by boat to Australia. This policy has recently come under mounting pressure as new evidence shows the serious health issues that detained asylum seekers are developing from being held offshore for so long, with the most serious health issues impacting children. Al Jazeera reports that vulnerable, detained asylum seeking children are suffering from “severe mental and physical illness as a result of being held on Nauru.” This has forced the Australian government to bring many children into Australia for treatment. However, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced that the children will not be allowed to stay in Australia, and if asylum seekers continue to get into Australia by boat, they will be held on remote Pacific Islands. Australia is being pressured by many groups to change its harsh approach.
George Newhouse, director of the National Justice Project stated that “Offshore processing is a failure” and that “it is giving rise to a completely avoidable health crisis and needlessly destroying lives.” Australian Liberal Party MP Julia Banks has criticized the prime minister’s recent announcement, “children are citizens of the world and children on Nauru are our ultimate responsibility” and that “long-term indefinite detention is no place for any child.” The Australian Human Rights Commission has documented “serious levels of mental illness, trauma, depression, self-harm, sexual assault and suicide among held asylum seekers.” The Law Council of Australia, Save the Children and the R.A.C.P. have praised the Australian government’s recent measure to move asylum children off Nauru for medical treatment, yet each agree that more needs to be done.
The Australian government is in breach of multiple international human rights obligations. In 2012, previous Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard established an expert panel to investigate the policy’s issues to see what other policy options the country could use, yet many of the key recommendations have not been followed. Both New Zealand and the United States have offered to take asylum seekers from the remote islands. Only 439 have been accepted into the United States and Australia has rejected New Zealand’s offer as it would allow asylum seekers a ‘back door’ into Australia, since New Zealand citizens are able to freely live and work in Australia without a visa. If Australia cannot come to agreement with a third country, it needs to uphold its international human rights obligations and allow asylum seekers a fair chance to rebuild their lives in Australia.
It is unfair for Australia to implement a policy that traps asylum seekers who have fled their homes in limbo on a remote island such as Nauru. Australia allowing detained children to enter the country for medical attention is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done to ensure that asylum seekers’ rights are fully upheld.