Human Rights Abuses in Australian Detainment and Detention Centres

Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released a report criticising both the living conditions of asylum seekers and condemning the human rights abuses occurring against them, at a processing centre on the island of Nauru. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are internationally operating non-governmental organisations that focus on bringing awareness to and solving human rights abuses.

The BBC reports that the controversial article was written after an incognito visit to Nauru last month, and features interviews with 84 refugees and asylum seekers. The interviews unearthed claims of rape and assault, inadequate medical care, and cramped living conditions.

The Australian Immigration Department released a statement in response to the published report, criticising Amnesty International for not consulting the government in its preparation. In addition to this, the Australian government has strongly refuted claims that the abuses of asylum seekers are deliberately ignored.

Nauru is a tiny island and sovereign country that is located northeast of Australia. Although Australia does not exert control over the laws of Nauru, all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to Australia are sent to offshore processing centres on the island and in Papua New Guinea. In addition to this, the BBC reports that both the company that runs the processing centre, and the medical service provider, have contracts with the Australian government. As such, it may be argued that the Australian government owes a duty of care to the asylum seekers that approach its borders, and a moral obligation to make sure that their treatment in the processing centres is both fair and humane.

The BBC reports that from 2015 to present, Australia has accepted 13,750 people and has committed to accepting an additional 12,000 refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq. At its highest point, 18,000 people arrived in Australia illegally by sea. Most commonly, asylum seekers will attempt to reach Australia on boats from Indonesia, often paying extortionate fees to people smugglers. Hundreds of people have died making the dangerous journey.

The leading political parties in Australia, both the ruling Liberal-National coalition and the Labor opposition, support ‘tough asylum policies’. The government suggests that the detainment of everyone who arrives, and the barbaric policy of turning boats around, is a deterrent to those wishing to illegally enter Australia, and as such is justified. People seek asylum out of desperation, and are forced to do so because of unlivable conditions at home, whether this be due to political unrest or natural disaster. The prolonged detention of these refugees in processing centres is further detrimental to their mental and physical health. Neither political party in Australia has made an effort to make the journey safer, nor to actively improve on the lives of the refugees, who are most in need.

The BBC reports that even if the detainees are found to be refugees, many are not given permission to live Australia, but are settled in Nauru or Papua New Guinea instead. The human rights abuses committed in detainment centres on Nauru are under the authority of the Australian government, and as a result, such abuses are both adopted and condoned as a matter of policy.

The treatment of people by the Australian government in both its detainment and detention centres must come under scrutiny, as human rights abuses are occurring shockingly close to home. Early last week, footage of a young indigenous boy being cuffed to a chair, while many others were tear-gassed, emerged on the ABC’s Four Corners programme. The disturbing video was filmed at the Don Dale youth detention centre in the Northern Territory, and focuses on 14-year-old Dylan Voller, who was assaulted, stripped naked and kept in solitary confinement.

While Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has called for an investigation, he has rejected calls from the United Nations Human Rights Commission to

“Extend the scope of the investigation…to establish that such appalling treatment is not taking place in any other place of detention in Australia”.

Dylan Voller was convicted of crimes including car theft, robbery and assault, but is eligible for release in August. If released, it will be the first time he has experienced freedom as an adult. 

It is the duty of the Australian government to ensure that the people under their care are treated in a fairly and justly, with respect to their human rights. The location of these individuals in offshore detainment centres, or in detention centres within Australia, does nothing to lessen their right to life.

While indigenous people represent only about 3% of Australia’s population, they are 26 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-indigenous youth, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. This disproportionality suggests that indigenous youth incarceration is an issue that must be tackled at a social level, and implies that there may be an issue of the treatment of indigenous people in Australian society.

On an international scale, governments must work to set up strong refugee systems in which people are allowed to apply for asylum, have their claims treated fairly, and be resettled if possible. 

Claudia Thomson