Australia’s Refugee Secrets

Secretos de Refugiados en Australia

By Marie Struthers

What do the “Panama Papers” and refugees on Nauru Island (near Australia) have in common? Off-shore secrets and leaked documents that unmask these secrets. Both wealthy individuals and governments use off-shore islands to hide questionable financial and other illegal activities.

The “Panama Papers” were leaked by journalists in 2016. They are a set of 11.5 million documents showing how rich people worldwide, including political leaders, avoid paying tax at home by investing in offshore businesses. While the practice is considered legal, the “Panama Papers” reveal that it is mostly used to avoid paying taxes.

Nauru is a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean. In 2001 the Australian government adopted a policy to reject asylum-seekers arriving in Australia by boat. Instead, they transferred them to detention centres offshore, on Nauru and Manus (another island in the Pacific Ocean). The Australian government made the detention centres punitive, to deter human smuggling and prevent deaths at sea.

The refugees’ presence on Nauru constitutes illegal, forced detention, as neither Australia nor Nauru will resettle them. Yet 77% of those forcibly sent by Australia to Nauru whose asylum claims have been assessed have received official refugee status. They have a “well-founded fear of persecution” and are legally owed protection.

It is thus unsurprising that Nauru was kept a secret. Journalists were denied access, and detention centre staff risked prison were they to speak publicly about conditions.

Nauru is just 21 square kilometres, the size of an international airport. Its population is 10,000, and at the time of writing at there were at least 941 refugees on Nauru, and 675 on Manus. In the global context of 65,000,000 displaced people, of course, these numbers are miniscule.

Further, 80% of Nauru’s land is uninhabitable, which means that island residents and refugees are crammed together very tightly. There is tension between the two groups, and discrimination against the refugees. What is worse, Nauru relies almost entirely on revenue from the detention centre, so there is little incentive to close it down. This is because when the island’s phosphate — exported worldwide to be used as fertiliser — ran out in the 1980s, the island’s economy collapsed.

In August 2016, the “Nauru Files,” more than 2,000 documents leaked from inside Australia’s immigration detention system, showed the scale of punishment inside the camp: a pattern of systematic sexual assaults, child abuse, hunger strikes and suicide attempts.

Abuses conducted by detention centre staff against the refugees appear mostly to arise from the climate of discrimination. In addition the majority of children have not attended school due to bullying, and health care is sub-standard. All of this, as well as the state of indefinite detention they find themselves in, has led to severe psychological distress for most refugees.

One from Iran died after setting himself on fire in May 2016. Others as young as nine years of age have tried to kill themselves repeatedly. Those suffering from serious medical conditions including heart disease have been denied adequate treatment; a woman was handcuffed just hours after giving birth. A suicidal Somali woman was hospitalised in Australia for four months and forcibly returned to Nauru. She set herself on fire, burning 86 percent of her body.

The United Nations has called the detention illegal, and treatment of asylum-seekers, particularly children, torture.

As at late March 2017 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was to refer 850 refugees from Nauru and Manus for resettlement in the US, under an Australia-US deal brokered by former president Obama. It remains to be seen whether the arrangement will be implemented, as in early March the US administration imposed a 120-day suspension of its refugee program, and a 90-day travel ban to the US by citizens of six Muslim countries.

In the last edition of this magazine we described how two of the world’s wealthiest nations, France and the U.K., are shirking moral responsibility by refusing to resettle a few thousand unaccompanied, vulnerable children. Australia is also one of the world’s wealthiest nations, with a population of 23 million. Surely it has room and resources for 1,600 refugees who have suffered undeniable abuse under its own watch?