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Australia: New video on cruel ‘offshore processing’ policy

Protesters holding banners march to urge the Australian government to end the refugee crisis on Manus Island, Sydney, Australia, 2017
Protesters holding banners march to urge the Australian government to end the refugee crisis on Manus Island, Sydney, Australia, 2017

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

This article was originally published on hrw.org on 17 January 2018. 

A new video from Human Rights Watch highlights ongoing abuses ahead of the fifth anniversary of the Australian government's reintroduction of its offshore processing and settlement policy. Under this policy, people seeking asylum who travel by boat are sent to remote offshore camps on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the island nation of Nauru.

On July 19, 2013, then-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have “no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees.” Soon thereafter, Australia signed agreements to resettle people on PNG and Nauru. Since then, Australia has forcibly transferred 3,172 people, most of them refugees, to camps on those islands at a cost of more than A$5 billion (US$3.7 billion). About 1,600 remain: 750 men in PNG, and 850 men, women, and children on Nauru.

“The fifth anniversary of depositing people in misery and suffering on isolated Pacific islands at the cost of a billion dollars a year should be viewed with outrage,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Australia has gone from being a country that once welcomed immigrants to a world leader in treating refugees with brazen cruelty.”

Australian officials have called the policy “harsh but effective,” and some European Union leaders have suggested following Australia's lead and processing asylum seekers offshore. But the cost to human lives of these policies demonstrates that Australia is no role model for Europe or anywhere else, Human Rights Watch said.

In the new video, refugees and asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru describe the last five years as living in a hellish legal limbo marked by great uncertainty about their future. The indeterminate and seemingly unending detention apart from loved ones has exacerbated depression, anxiety, and PTSD among people who have often fled atrocities and repression. A man, a woman, and a 14-year-old girl set themselves on fire in separate instances on Nauru. Six people have killed themselves, and dozens more have tried.

Sudanese refugee Abdul Aziz Adam, held on Manus Island for nearly five years, tells Human Rights Watch, “The current situation on Manus Island is just like hell. Since we have been forcibly removed from the former detention center, until now nothing has changed. Things are just getting worse and worse, day after day. We have lost so many guys… due to negligence and lack of proper health care. We have multiple numbers of refugees who are suffering severely from mental health issues.”

Since November 2017, when the authorities closed the main center on Manus Island, officials forcibly relocated refugees and asylum seekers – all men – to three other centers in the vicinity of the main town of Lorengau. This has heightened tensions with the local community. Local men have beaten and robbed the refugees. Since June 2018, a 12-hour curfew has been imposed on the refugees and asylum seekers in violation of their freedom of movement, following a car accident in which an allegedly drunk refugee killed a local woman. In July, the United Nations refugee agency observed “a high level of tension and further deterioration in the mental health of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island.”

Australia's only plan for ending this suffering has been a resettlement deal to send some refugees to the United States. But progress has been slow, with only a few hundred going to the US so far – and the US saying it will not take everyone. Australia has repeatedly rejected offers by New Zealand to take some of the refugees.

The Australian government should immediately transfer the men, women, and children on Manus and Nauru to Australia or to safe third countries and end this harmful practice of offshore processing once and for all, Human Rights Watch said.

“Sending asylum seekers offshore doesn't free Australia of its obligations to these people,” Pearson said. “The past five years of this cruel policy should be fixed by transferring them and future arrivals to safe locations in Australia and abroad.”

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