Australia is charged with 'atrocious treatment' of asylum seekers

Strict immigration laws meant to deter would-be asylum seekers from taking boats to Australia have landed many refugees on the island nation of Nauru, where they endure abuse and poor living conditions, according to human rights advocates.

Rick Rycroft/AP
Refugees (r.) gather on one side of a fence to talk with international journalists about their journey that brought them to the Island of Nauru. Human rights groups accused Australia on Wednesday of deliberately ignoring the abuse of asylum seekers being held at the remote Pacific island detention camp in a bid to deter future refugees from trying to reach the country by boat.

A report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released on Wednesday is accusing Australia of ignoring and even sponsoring the abuse of refugees on Nauru – one of two island nations where Australia sends asylum seekers – in order to deter future refugees from attempting to enter the country.

The worst of the abuse occurs behind the walls of an Australian-funded processing camp where refugees reported that they had been denied medical care, subjected to poor living conditions, and were targeted victims of violent crimes.

“The Australian government is commissioning the abuse of these people,” Anna Neistat, a senior director for research at Amnesty International who spent five days on Nauru in July, told The New York Times. “It pays for the companies that detain the refugees, it pays for the guards, and it fails to provide adequate medical care. Australian taxpayers are funding it. And the world does not know this place exists.”

Ms. Neistat was one of two human rights workers, along with Michael Bochenek, senior counsel for Human Rights Watch, to make it into Nauru, a country that typically denies visas to journalists and human rights organizations. But after withholding information about their employers, the pair were able to spend a combined 12 days on the island interviewing over 84 asylum seekers, including children, as well as service providers.

Australia's Department of Immigration and Border Protection denied the allegations, and criticized Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for not contacting the department before the allegations were published. Additionally, Chris Gordon, the corporate and public affairs manager at  Broadspectrum, the company that Australia pays to provide services for refugees on Nauru has stated that its was a “zero tolerance for abuse.” 

 There are currently more than 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Nauru, around half of whom are held in the processing camp and half living elsewhere on the island. They come primarily from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and eastern Africa. 

“Australia’s atrocious treatment of the refugees on Nauru over the past three years has taken an enormous toll on their well-being,” Mr. Bochenek said in a statement.

On the island that is just eight square miles, suicide attempts are frequent and mental health issues, particularly depression and anxiety, are rampant in both adults and children.

“I don’t doubt the veracity of the allegations,” Peter Young, a psychiatrist who worked for International Health and Medical Services, which provides health services in Nauru, from 2011 to 2014 as the director of mental health services, told The New York Times. “I know there are people there with significant mental health issues. The government is pursuing a policy that makes these people human sacrifices to stop more boats from coming.”

Some of those allowed to leave the processing center reported feeling unsafe, particularly women. Bochenek and Neistat heard numerous reports of refugees being attacked or sexually assaulted in the community, and of children facing bullying at school. 

“After I left the camp, I felt very unsafe, I could not go out,” said a refugee interviewed by Amnesty International. “I decided to marry a man who is 15 years older, just to have protection. If you are alone, everything is a struggle. At least he could go shopping or accompany me. Now he is in the hospital and I have to rely on my case manager if I need to go out of the house.”

Australia has previously faced criticism from the United Nations and human rights organizations for its strict immigration laws. The country has a policy to not admit asylum seekers, and instead pays Nauru and Papua New Guinea to detain the refugees, a process that can last years and costs the Australian government an estimated $900 million each year. The government says the policy is meant to deter people from attempting the voyage in boats that are not capable of making the journey, which has lead to mass drownings in the past. 

The Australian government has been called on to change its immigration practices before by organizations such as the Australian Human Rights Commission and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, each of whom have compiled reports of the abuses previously.

The first step forward from the Australian government since the release of the report on Wednesday came from the Australian Greens Party Sen. Sarah Hanson-Young, according to The New York Times. Senator Hanson-Young has said she will introduce legislation to call for free access to Nauru for reports and human rights advocates to investigate the situation further.

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