MELBOURNE, Australia — “As a young person I had never thought, as I do now, that I would be ashamed to be an Australian. One of the main reasons for that shame, but not the only one, are our policies to asylum seekers.” That is how the Honorable Alastair Nicholson, former chief justice of the Family Court and chairman of Children’s Rights International, began his June condemnation of the Australian government’s treatment of refugees.
In late November, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released two reports that revealed the horrific plight of asylum seekers sent by the Australian government to detention camps on the remote Pacific island of Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. At these camps, refugees are subjected to degrading conditions meant to deter them, along with indefinite imprisonment and a ban on any detainees from ever settling in Australia or from seeking asylum in the country.
The inhumane conditions summarized in the reports expose a severely menacing regime that has caused severe mental trauma and suicide attempts.
In the Nauru detention camp, the U.N. team discovered detainees, including pregnant women, living in hot, overcrowded and rat-infested tents with non-existent privacy. Children were infested with lice, many also had skin infections and all of them suffered deteriorating mental health. In one section of the camp, detainees were forced to live in tents in an area with no grass and no shade, made of white gravel that glowed with a blinding glare during the day. Toilets and showers were few and far between.
Similar conditions on Manus Island had detainees living in cramped blocks that “smelt putrid and had blocked shower drains with several inches of filthy water flooding the floor.” Additionally, asylum seekers were concerned about the threat of contracting malaria – malaria-carrying mosquitoes and other parasites keep popular residence on Manus Island.
When Amnesty International spoke to asylum seekers, they discovered that although the food is edible at the camps, they are loaded with flies and even the occasional human tooth. They also found that in the largest compound, 500 men are given a daily total of 12 water bottles to share between themselves.
“How did we get ourselves into this state?” asked Nicholson. “Australia is rapidly becoming an international pariah, riding roughshod over solemn treaty obligations into which it has entered like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the U.N. Refugee Convention and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.”
On the government’s side, Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s administration is offering refugees at the Manus Island and Nauru detention centers up to $10,000 to leave the country, hoping that the monetary incentive will spur asylum seekers to abandon their hopes of establishing a safe life in Australia and voluntarily return to the perilous conflict zones from which they escaped. Called “return packages,” the offers are based on which land the refugees fled from – returning to Pakistan, Nepal or Burma pays $3,300, Afghanistan garners $4,000, Iran or Sudan nets $7,000 and resigning oneself back to life in Lebanon is urged on with $10,000.
Less than 300 people have voluntarily returned to the countries they fled from. The payments are given only when the asylum seeker has gone back to their home country. Human rights advocates have reacted with outrage, reprimanding the Australian government for using monetary incentive to push people to abandon their hopes of resettling in Australia.
A refugee from Dubai remarked, “I thought if I went to Australia, I would find a country with respect for human rights. I was thinking to leave darkness for light, but what I find is that I have left darkness for even more darkness.”
– Annie Jung
Read about poverty in Australia.