Australia’s Inhumane Offshore Detention Centres

More than 100 asylum seekers were sent to the capital of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (PNG), for medical treatment in 2017. Some have been there for nearly a year and while it may appear that sending ill asylum seekers to Port Moresby is a positive step, PNG lacks the medical equipment needed to help these sick people. A refugee at the Pacific International Hospital in Port Moresby is being treated for a serious condition and was restrained for three days and force-fed after going on a 20-day hunger strike to protest the poor care he has received in PNG. The foreigner is subject to a court order requiring force feeding and medical treatment and claims to have been slapped by the hospital workers in an attempt to force feed him. The man had previously been sent to Australia for medical care and returned to Manus Island. His condition cannot be treated in Papua New Guinea, yet Australian officials will not permit him to enter their country for help. He has been in the hospital for over a month. Amnesty International’s Pacific Researcher Kate Schuetze said the man needed to be transferred to Australia for appropriate help and that “Forcing medical treatment and feeding a patient without his consent, unless it is medically necessary, may violate the right to health and the right to be protected from torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

More than 800 refugees have been transferred to PNG for offshore processing and will likely never enter Australia ever again. These people detained in Papua New Guinea have not had the opportunity to present or appeal their claims, even though they may have received a negative assessment from the PNG immigration authorities. To lessen the number of refugees in Papua New Guinea, Australia has implemented an offshore immigration regime which has seen 58 asylum seekers flown from Papua New Guinea to the United States of America earlier this month with the promise of being resettled there. Last year 54 refugees from Australia’s immigration islands, Manus Island and the independent pacific state of Nauru, were accepted to immigrate to the United States and settled individually and in groups. Another group of 130 asylum seekers from Nauru have been accepted for resettlement in the U.S and will leave the detention centre in the upcoming weeks. Australia’s offshore immigration regime was conceived by its Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and brokered with former U.S President Barack Obama in September 2016. In exchange for America to agree to resettle 1,250 asylum seekers from Australia’s detention houses, Australia agreed to take refugees from the U.S. refugee camps in Costa Rica, which are from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. 30 asylum seekers from the Costa Rica camps have been resettled in Australia; however, no Somalis or Iranians have been accepted for resettlement in the U.S. due to its current President Donald Trump executing a travel ban, which prohibits people of these nationalities from travelling to ‘his’ country.

Resettling refugees in America frees these people from the traumatic conditions of Nauru and Manus islands they are forced to experience. Male asylum seekers that attempt to enter Australia by boat are sent to Manus, while children and women are sent to Nauru. These people get separated from their family, with no method of contacting them, are terrified of what is going to happen next. The Manus Island detention centre has been operating since July 2013, when the Rudd government declared that refugees travelling by boat would never be resettled in Australia, reversing his 2008 decision to close the Manus Island and Nauru correctional facilities. Manus Centre was initially established in 2001 by the Howard government but was closed October of last year by the Australian and PNG governments after a PNG Supreme Court ruling in 2016 declared it uninhabitable. The former government has since handed over the operation of Manus Island’s new detention centre facilities to the Papua New Guinea government, which will cost Australia $250 million for the next year of operations for 77 refugees and asylum seekers, simply ignoring their responsibility to the welfare of these people to PNG. Less-secure facilities are available for those people on Manus Island but these men are afraid of violence from local residents. Australia has given them an ultimatum: they can either wait on that island for possible immigration offers from the U.S., settle in Papua New Guinea, move to Nauru, or simply return home. None of these options are what the asylum seekers risked their lives for by travelling across dangerous waters in an unsafe boat. For these people, returning home is not an option and would lead to death and persecution in their third world countries. These refugees have faced escalating violence from the PNG locals, making resettlement in PNG impossible and moving from Manus Island to Nauru does not give them their freedom because they will be simply moving from one detention centre to another. The most promising outcome for them is to be resettled in the U.S, but not all will get this lucky opportunity.

Australia’s offshore correctional facilities are marred by the inhumane living conditions and the abhorrent treatment of asylum seekers. 62 refugees were injured and one killed in a violent riot at the Manus facility in February 2014 when PNG police and locals attacked the detainees. Further, in July 2015 a security guard was murdered, a machete attack happened and a woman was gang-raped by three Australian guards. In April 2017, nine people were injured in the Good Friday shooting after Papua New Guinea military personnel shot at the detention centre in Manus. Deeply inadequate medical treatment at the Australian offshore centres has led to the deaths of asylum seekers. An Iranian refugee died there in September 2014 after a cut on his foot became infected and was left untreated, while a Sudanese died in December 2016 after suffering blackouts, falls and seizures for months. Furthermore, in October of last year a Sri Lankan asylum seeker died in Lorengau hospital and in August 2017 an Iranian one took his life. 300 refugees at the Manus Centre went on a hunger strike in January 2015, unable to cope with the seemingly hopeless situation, recurring violence and terror.

If Australia truly wants to find a solution to the problem, they must first accept responsibility for the asylum seekers they intercept entering their waters. Instead of passing the responsibility for these people to PNG and America, they must be held accountable for the housing, medical needs and resettlement of refugees. For example, the Australian government settled a class action in June 2017, paying more than $70 million to more than 2000 detainees, denying any liability. This is preposterous because if they had no liability there would be no need to pay the detainees such a substantial sum of money. If asylum seekers are willing to risk their lives to pay exorbitant amounts of money to travel on a leaky boat that may drown them before reaching Australia, it is inhumane to subject them to the awful conditions of the detention centres, treating them like the public enemy. If Australia was a third world country and their citizens were searching for shelter, they would be outraged if other countries did not offer them help and placed them in detention cells with inadequate medical attention. Australia must start treating refugees as people who have the same rights as everyone else. These people must be provided with clean housing, medical treatment and nourishing food, instead of being viewed as criminals. Some of them are highly educated and could be very valuable members of society. Australia should not pretend that there is no room in their country for people fleeing persecution; instead, they should open their hearts and minds to what could happen if these people were to be accepted, desiring nothing more than to just live without fear.

Olivia Reed

Olivia studies a Bachelor of Communication (Journalism) at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia.