At least 14 refugees on the island of Manus, Papua New Guinea (P.N.G.), have attempted suicide or committed self-harm. This comes amidst growing desperation following the surprise re-election of Australia’s conservative government on May 18th. The victory of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Liberal-National coalition defied months of opinion polling indicating a probable win for the left-leaning Australian Labor Party. According to Manus Island Detention Centre detainee and human rights activist Behrouz Boochani, many asylum seekers were hoping for a change in government to soften Canberra’s hard line on asylum. Manus Island Police Commander, David Yapu, has disputed these numbers telling news agency AFP that he was aware of four suicide attempts only. Yapu added that long term depression must be taken into account rather than linking the attempts to the recent election.
Manus-based refugees and advocates have warned of the consistently deteriorating mental health conditions of detainees. With long-term detention often lasting for years, self-harm and suicide attempts have become frequent. Speaking with Al Jazeera, the Australian Director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, said that more than 80% of asylum seekers are reported to suffer from mental health problems and “Australia still has a duty of care to these people.” She further remarked that “[Australia] transferred these people there, and under these conditions, people have developed such serious and acute health conditions.” In another interview with the BBC , Pearson commented that the election results had only exacerbated feelings of hopelessness: “Rightly or wrongly, many of the refugees had really pinned their hopes on a Labor victory meaning a change to their situation.”
Since 2013 the Australian government has sent asylum seekers attempting to arrive by boat to be held indefinitely on the remote islands of Nauru and Manus Island. The government insists their policies prevent human trafficking and deaths at sea. However, The U.N. has repeatedly criticized the policies as “inhumane” in their design and implementation. Human rights monitors such as Amnesty International have reported the conditions in these centres as “hellish” and “tantamount to torture”, designed to terrify detainees into going home and using their suffering as a deterrent to others seeking asylum. Refugees face ongoing harm through the psychological trauma caused by the uncertainty of their futures, volatile security, attacks by locals, and the shortage of health facilities’ resources and personnel.
With no chance of resettlement in Australia, refugees are left with only three options: they can either choose to resettle in Nauru or P.N.G., apply to be considered for resettlement in the US, or return to their home countries.
Ahead of the elections, Labor had pledged to agree to a proposed deal by New Zealand to resettle 150 refugees from the islands annually. The ruling coalition, however, remains adverse to reforms in regards to offshore detention. Prime Minister, Scott Morrison has ruled out the possibility of a New Zealand resettlement, claiming it could provide a backdoor for refugees into Australia, and has vowed upon re-election to repeal the recently passed Medevac Bill allowing sick refugee detainees to be brought to Australia for urgent medical treatment.
Such policies are doing serious damage to Australia’s global reputation on human rights. An immediate reversal is needed to restore Australia’s credibility and end the prolonged suffering and deteriorating mental health of the detainees. Speaking with CNN, award-winning journalist and current Manus Island detainee, Behrouz Boochani said “right now people think that there is no other way to get off of these islands and that we will be soon forgotten forever.”
Indeed, refugees and asylum-seekers must be given the protection they need and deserve under international law. As such. the Organzation for World Peace calls for their immediate transfer to Australia’s shores. We call on Australia to prove Boochani wrong, and show that he, along with the thousands detained, will not be forgotten.
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