Human Rights Abuses At Australian Detention Centres


In recent weeks there has been a lot of media conversation regarding the closure of Australia’s offshore detention facility on Manus Island.  It was closed on the 2nd of November after the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled that it was unconstitutional for it to be in operation. Various human rights organizations, including the United Nations, have reported numerous instances of human rights violations. These violations include living in cramped, substandard and inhumane conditions, physical injury, sexual abuse and psychological injury. As of writing this report, the Manus Island facility has been closed; however, nearly 600 men chose to remain inside due to fears of personal safety upon leaving.

Australia is breaching human rights. Australia is not a third world country, nor a war torn country. Australia is a democracy – one that surely should not be treating its people inhumanely. Alas, this is happening in the nation. Australia may turn a blind eye to committed atrocities, but we should not. The evoked outrage from organizations regarding the conditions of detention on Manus Island is warranted, yet the broader story of Australia’s hard line policies should be viewed in the same light.

Over the past 20 years, successive Australian governments have adopted policies aimed at deterring asylum seekers from attempting to reach Australian land. The dominant political parties, the Liberal-National coalition and the Labour opposition, both support hard line immigration policies. Key to their dialogue regarding the use of harsh policies is the humanitarian argument that Australia has a duty to stop asylum seekers from attempting a dangerous journey predominantly controlled by “criminal gangs.” The use of offshore processing centres and mandatory detention, like Manus Island, act as deterrents.

There have been multiple amendments to Australia’s immigration policy over the last 20 years. However, the use of mandatory detention and offshore detention have been key to policy over the last two decades. In 1992, mandatory detention was introduced for any non-citizen who arrived via boat without a valid visa and was later broadened to include any person arriving in Australia by any mode of transport.

In 2001 the “Pacific Solution” was implemented which included offshore processing. Due to the ‘solution,’ the number of ‘boat people’ arriving in Australia decreased rapidly; in 2008, the Kevin Rudd administration disbanded the Pacific Solution due to a lack of demand for the facilities. Yet,  in 2012 the offshore detention facilities on Nauru and Manus Island were reopened as the perceived demand for them increased. In 2013 the coalition government introduced the Operation Sovereign Borders policy giving the military mandate to patrol Australian waters and intercept any vessel that was attempting to reach Australia. The boat people and the vessels were either returned to their port of origin, or simply turned away and left to their own resources.

To briefly summarize – Australia has a policy whereby any person, whether adult or child, who reaches Australia illegally without a valid visa will be detained indefinitely in an offshore facility. This occurs regardless of the person’s individual circumstance.

The Australian government’s use of offshore detention and mandatory detention of immigrants contravenes obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention to the Rights of the Child.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) article 10 states the people who are being detained need to be treated with respect, dignity and humanity. However, several visits made to the offshore detention facilities by the Australian Human Rights Commission have uncovered evidence that this is not being met. Majid Kamasaee, an Iranian man detained on Manus Island, spoke of his experience at the centre: “I left my home in Iran in 2013 because of religious persecution and I came to Australia seeking peace. But I was sent to Manus, which was hell. The way we were treated at the Manus Island detention centre was degrading and cruel.”

Detention is indefinite – there is no time limit written in the migration act. The act contradicts Article 9(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and article 37(b) of the Convention to the Rights of the Child (CRC) which have binding obligations to ensure that no one is subjected to arbitrary detention. Australia’s Human Rights Commission has recommended multiple times that mandatory detention for all illegal refugees should be removed and detention should only be used on a case by case basis, and when deemed absolutely necessary. They also argue that judicial oversight of detention is required to ensure that people are not detained for any longer than is necessary.

The CRC also requires that children only be detained as a last resort and for the shortest possible time. However, under the Migration Act, children are treated to the same indefinite detention as adults except that there is a higher chance that the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection would move the child to a community rather than secure detention facility. Alas, this is not guaranteed, and as of 2013 there were 1428 children being kept in secure detention facilities.

By keeping children in detention facilities they are being denied access to appropriate recreation and education facilities and are exposed to climatically harsh and unsafe environments. They are also kept in close proximity to non-family members without the opportunity to distance oneself.

The UN Human Rights Commission has found Australia to be “breaching the right to not be subjected to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment and the right of detainees to be treated with dignity.” They argue that continuing to detain people with the knowledge that it is contributing to mental illness constitutes a breach. The UN and Australian Human Rights Commission both provide evidence that “detention in a remote and climatically harsh and overcrowded conditions and a lack of meaningful activities and adequate services have negative impact on the mental health of detainees.”

The Australian government agreed to pay AUD$70 million to more than 1900 asylum seekers who sued over their treatment on Manus Island. These men alleged that they suffered physical and psychological injury as well as false imprisonment. In a recent report, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights of migrants said Australia has “clear and undeniable” responsibility for the “physical and psychological damage” suffered from refugees and asylum seekers. Yet, the Australian government denied that the settlement was an admission of liability or wrongdoing.

With the facility on Manus Island closing, there are questions to answer regarding what happens now to the men seeking asylum. Australia has stated that it will not accept these men into the country. They have also declined the offer made by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to resettle 150 of the men into New Zealand. Currently, Malcom Turnball, Australian Prime Minister, is continuing to pursue a resettlement arrangement that would see 1250 people resettled in the United State – however, progress has been slowing. The Papua New Guinea government is urging Australia to reach a consensus as the situation for the men left on Manus becomes increasingly dire. Food, electricity and water have been cut off from the now closed centre; the United Nations is warning that a humanitarian emergency is becoming ever more likely.

The people kept at the offshore detention centres have the option for a free flight home, yet they choose to stay. Many say the these facilities are “hell.” Therefore, the choice to return to their homeland must be even worse than hell. Which would you choose, the frying pan or the fire?