Are we torturing people on Nauru? Yes, according to Amnesty International, in its recent report Island of Despair.
This report was based on interviews with refugees on the island, people who worked for companies that provided services in Nauru under Australia government contracts, and others concerned within the Australian community. Those who were interviewed also provided evidence such as photos, videos or audio recordings in support of their claims. The report also analysed the leaked ‘Nauru files’.
So what did the report say?
It is difficult for journalists to access Nauru and obtain information about the centre. The Border Force Act imposes a prison sentence of up to two years for any staff member of the processing centre to speak publicly about the conditions in the centre. The price of a media visa to Nauru increased from $200 AUD to $8000 AUD in January 2014. The veil of secrecy imposed by the Australian and Nauru government means the people we have sent to Nauru suffer in silence.
Mental illness and self-harm are unacceptably common in the Nauru processing centre. Many of those who were interviewed often reported health issues such as high levels of anxiety, trouble sleeping and mood swings.
The report reveals many tragic accounts of self-harm. There were accounts of men pouring petrol on themselves and drinking washing-up liquids. There were reports of a pregnant woman trying to hang herself, and girls attempting to suicide two or more times a week. These tragedies are a result of the hopelessness induced in those on Nauru.
As well, there are inadequate medical facilities and services on Nauru. People often have to wait for months to take proper medical tests, even for life-threatening conditions such as cancer. Immigration officials, rather than doctors, decide whether a person can be transferred for medical reasons to Australia. The implementation of immigration policies appears to be more important than saving human lives.
Surrounded by danger
The people we have sent to Nauru face threats to their physical safety from those on Nauru who do not welcome them. Amnesty reports that refugees have been assaulted, their motorbikes have been stolen, their homes have been broken into, and they have been physically attacked by machete. Those in the processing centre who were victims of crime were helpless. Nauruan police often fail to investigate the crimes properly and take adequate action.
Children were harassed and bullied at schools by local children and teachers. The greatest anguish for the parents was their inability to protect their own children. There were stories such as a security guard throwing a rock at children whom she believed was misbehaving. The rock hit a child’s face and chipped off his tooth. No action was taken against the guard, and as a result the child suffered from nightmares and panic attacks. The child now barely speaks.
Lack of dignity
Individuals were treated in humiliating, traumatising, and dehumanising ways. Staff working for contractors call people by their boat or refugee identification number rather than their name. Staff also force individuals out of the shower after two minutes, or make people wait for months before they can get basic goods such as shoes and underwear. These actions were designed to destroy the spirits of those in the processing centre.
Who is responsible?
Amnesty makes clear that the Australian government is responsible. It was the Australian government which set up the processing centre in Nauru and which sent people there. Australian authorities are continuously informed of the situation on the island. It is clear that the soul-destroying conditions on Nauru was intended by the Australian government, as the current conditions on Nauru were foreseeable.
Amnesty concludes that Australia’s offshore processing regime amounts to torture under international law, because of the severe mental anguish caused by the system, its intentional nature, and its goal of intimidating or coercing people to achieve a specific outcome
What else can we do?
Finding an alternative method of processing the claims of those seeking asylum is a question of political will. It is possible to reduce deaths at sea while eliminating abuse. These two concepts should not be mutually exclusive. Amnesty International has suggested considering the following policy actions:
- Boosting our aid program to help neighbouring countries better protect and support refugees. Australia could also use existing regional mechanisms like the Bali Process to reach agreement on improved rights protections for people seeking protection throughout the region.
- Increasing access for refugees to Australia’s mainstream migration program by including them when the government allocates student, work and family reunion visas.
- Expanding private sponsorship and family reunion visa options for refugees.
- Actively participating in responsibility-sharing arrangements which make sure asylum claims are processed in a timely manner, and the most vulnerable people are resettled within the region and globally.