Another detainee has died in an Australian offshore detention centre on Manus Island after allegedly taking his own life. The thirty-two-year-old Sri Lankan Tamil man was sent to hospital three days prior to receiving attention for injuries from self-harm. Since the Papa New Guinean High Court ruled that the detention centre was unlawful and a violation of human rights, Australian officials have commenced the progressive closure of the centre, which is believed to conclude on October 31. However, the most recent death on Manus Island has renewed calls for a drastic overhaul of Australia’s border protection policy. Besides, human rights groups have urged officials to bring asylum seekers into Australian territory for resettlement, rather than shuttling them amongst offshore detention facilities.
Since Australia’s offshore detention program began in 2013, the UNHCR has repeatedly warned Australian officials about the worsening state of mental health problems and rehabilitation prospects amongst asylum seekers. The spokeswoman, Ravina Shamdasani, observed that “their situation has become increasingly dire and untenable, exacerbated by the indefinite nature of their time” in detention. By contrast, Australian Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, has consistently questioned the sincerity of detainees in their quest for asylum. Dutton inferred that most asylum seekers were economic migrants, claiming “we’ve got the world’s biggest collection of Armani jeans and handbags up on Nauru waiting for people to collect it when they depart.”
While the Australian Immigration Minister and Prime Minister may concur that the offshore detention program is a device to prevent refugee deaths at sea, their deterrence policy has cost $9.6 billion in four years, according to a Save the Children report funded by UNICEF. $400 000 is spent per asylum seeker per year to fund offshore detention on Manus Island or Nauru, compared to the $239 000 needed for the onshore detention or $12 000 if asylum seekers are allowed to integrate into the community. Ultimately, this expensive processing program has proved to be a systemic violation of the human right to asylum and is unrelentingly harmful to the physical and psychosocial health of detainees. In fact, Australian authorities have been alerted to concerns about isolation, overcrowding, sexual abuse, suicide, self-harm and unnecessary use of force by guards, all without any effect.
In September, an Australian Supreme Court in Victoria approved the largest human rights settlement in Australian legal history. Thirteen hundred refugees detained from 2012-2016 have compensated a sum of $70 million, with individual compensation weighted according to the severity of applicant’s experiences. In commenting on the settlement, Minister Dutton stated that the compensation was not concessionary, but an economical alternative to a more drawn-out legal proceeding. As the existing detention centre on Manus Island is dismantled, various contingency plans have been drawn up, but none impart greater certainty or security to detainees. Some asylum seekers are being transferred to the United States in accordance with a deal negotiated between the Australian Prime Minister and Barack Obama. Others have been offered up to $25 000 as an incentive to return to their country of origin.
As Australia continues a forceful campaign to earn a 2018/2020 seat at the UN Human Rights Council, greater pressure should be put into its selective efforts to protect and uphold the human rights of newly arrived asylum seekers. Former Prime Minister rejected a UN inquiry into refugee conditions, saying “I really think Australians are sick of being lectured by the United Nations.” Nevertheless, Salil Shetty, Secretary-General of Amnesty International aptly characterized the complacency of wealthy countries in responding to “the alarming deterioration of refugee rights.” Shetty asked, “What will it take for governments to wake up to the reality that their response to the global refugee crisis is totally broken?” In considering whether Australia is worthy of a seat, the 193 members of the UN general assembly need to question what more it will take for the government to ‘wake up’ following the latest death in detention.