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Nauru children with messages of protestThe Australian Senate has conducted an inquiry into ‘serious allegations of abuse, self-harm and neglect’ of people seeking asylum at Nauru and Manus regional processing centres (RPCs). The Senate inquiry was led by the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, and a report was released in April 2017.

The committee considers the findings to be deeply concerning and to illustrate an unsafe living environment and a lack of institutional accountability.

How was the Senate inquiry conducted?

To construct the report, the committee used evidence from three primary areas:

  • The operation and administration of RPCs, including service delivery, incident reporting, and health, safety and welfare
  • The offshore-processing policy itself, including whether it is effective, lawful, and/or represents “value for money”
  • Looking to the future, including how Australia can speed up third-country resettlement options

The committee studied the many incident reports made by refugees and staff at Nauru between 2013 and 2015, known as ‘the Nauru Files’. These reports were supported by evidence from people who made submissions to the inquiry.

What were the key findings?

The report illustrates that in its current form Australia’s policy of offshore-processing program is deeply flawed. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection has clearly failed to provide safe living conditions, leading to the many allegations of abuse, self-harm and neglect in RPCs.

Furthermore, the report criticises the ‘culture of secrecy’ around the management of the RPCs. This has created an unacceptable lack of accountability and transparency, and a failure to clearly acknowledge where the duty of care lies for people seeking asylum.

Factors contributing to abuse, self-harm and neglect

The committee heard that the main factors leading to allegations of abuse, self-harm and neglect are:

  • a damaging living environment, characterised by harsh conditions, inadequate health services, and cultural and social barriers
  • uncertainty about the future, worsened by the significant average length of time spent at the RPCs, and the impact of long-term family separation
  • lack of appropriate regulation, such as a child-protection framework in Nauru, and
  • a lack of transparency, accountability and scrutiny of the authorities.

There is unlikely to be any improvement in the mental health of detainees until these factors causing their distress are removed.

In addition, the inquiry raised concerns about the impact of detention on the ability of parents to effectively care for their children. In the RPCs there is a disintegration of the parent’s authority, often combined with the deteriorating mental health of the parents. Therefore children are often left with little protection or comfort.

The committee heard that the ultimate root cause of self-harm and abuse is the policy of offshore detention itself. This is because it is primarily designed to deter vulnerable people from seeking asylum and coerce them into repatriating. The RPC environment is ultimately one of punishment.

The costs of offshore processing

The Australian Government bears all expenses associated with running the RPCs on Manus and Nauru. This has entailed a budget of $880,509,000 in the 2016–17 financial year.

This is a considerable cost at taxpayers’ expense. Submitters to the inquiry raised concerns about this high level of expenditure. They argued that the outsourcing of services has allowed the spending of public money “without any of the restraints and scrutiny that normally limit public sector behaviour”.

There is a concerning lack of clarity and transparency in relation to the management of these costs. The committee found that it was difficult to get hold of “straightforward information” about this investment of taxpayer money.

Duty of care to people seeking asylum

A previous Senate inquiry in 2014 found that the Australian Government holds a duty of care to people being held in RPCs. The 2014 report emphasised a “clear and compelling moral obligation” to ensure that people seeking asylum are treated in accordance with international legal standards. These include:

  • the right not to be punished for seeking asylum
  • the prohibition of torture
  • the prohibition of arbitrary or indefinite detention, and
  • the right to enjoy the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection only accepted a restricted definition of its obligations, and claimed it continues to meet these. However, the committee heard several arguments that this is not the case. These include:

  • a class action currently being brought against the Manus RPC, claiming negligence
  • several submissions to the International Criminal Court (ICC) accusing Australia of crimes against humanity in RPCs, and
  • claims that Australia’s offshore detention policy violates its commitment to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT).

What action did the committee recommend?

The committee put forward several recommendations intended to improve conditions and accountability in the RPCs. It recommended that the Australian Government should:

  • commission an external review of its medical transfer procedures in RPCs, and seek advice on whether improvements are required to medical treatment options
  • recognise the impacts of long-term immigration detention, and commission an independent assessment of the effects on physical and mental health
  • commission an external investigation into all incident reports made at Manus and Nauru, and
  • work with the Government of the Republic of Nauru to establish an independent children’s advocate for the rights of children being detained.

The committee also made recommendations about the third-country resettlement process, including that the Australian Government should:

  • consider supporting family members who are seeking asylum to pursue options to resettle together
  • commit to increasing Australia’s annual refugee intake, and
  • work with Australia’s Asia-Pacific neighbours to establish a regional framework for the processing of claims for asylum.

Dissenting report from government Senators

The report also includes a response from the Coalition Senators which seeks to undermine the report. It includes counters to all the report’s recommendations and dismisses the evidence on which the report is based.