Humanitarian organisations and leading experts are calling the conditions at Australia’s asylum seeker detention centres in the Pacific “worse than ever”. They are advocating for fundamental policy changes to stop the deaths and, what they call, inhumane circumstances, reports Asia-Pacific Journalism's Lasse Underbjerg and Marcus Bank.
SPECIAL REPORT: A rising number of suicide attempts. Riots and demonstrations. Adults and children sewing their lips together as a last resort, desperately trying to avoid being force fed so they can die from starvation.
These are just some of the latest stories of a “self-harm epidemic” coming from Australian asylum seeker camps in Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
Humanitarian organisations and leading experts are calling the conditions “worse than ever” and are advocating for fundamental changes in Australia’s asylum seeker policy to stop the deaths and, what they call, inhumane circumstances.
How did it come this far?
Every month, immigrants undertake the perilous journey across the Indian Ocean from Indonesia trying to reach the shores of Australia.
Many are fleeing troubles and danger in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka.
They pay all their money to people smugglers, who operate boats out of Indonesia. Boats that are often very unsafe.
“They travel through Indonesia because it is very close to Australia and because the religion in the country is mainly Islamic, just as the countries they are fleeing from. That makes it easier to access the country,” said Dr Richard Bedford, professor of population geography at Waikato University and pro vice-chancellor at Auckland University of Technology.
For many the goal is a promise of a new life in Australia, but many do not make it that far. In the last 15 years hundreds of people have died undertaking the journey. And a lot more have been detained.
According to the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection (ADIBP) 2200 asylum seekers intercepted at sea by naval vessels are right now living in two detention camps, one on the tiny island-state of Nauru and the other on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
And with information of extreme conditions leaking from the camps, several experts call for change.
“Our international reputation is hugely damaged,” says Dr Karen Block, research fellow with the Researchers for Asylum Seekers (RAS) at the University of Melbourne.
“The situation is very extreme and it is completely inhumane to treat people like this. On top of that there is so much secrecy. Journalists have very limited access to the camps, so we know very little about the conditions and that is appalling. Clearly what the government is doing is not sustainable.”
Bob Douglas, emeritus professor with the research company Australia21, specialising in “addressing some of the difficult issues facing Australia in the 21 century,” says the situation has been damaging for Australia.
“We have reached a dead end. By now Australia has demerged its international reputation by what we have done in the last 15 years,” he says.
“We have about 35,000 people in Australia, Nauru and on Manus Island whose status is ill defined. Some of them are detained with deteriorating mental health.”
In the course of two years, 2012 and 2013 (June), 474 boats arrived in Australian territory carrying more than 30,000 people. Nine out of 10 are found to be genuine refugees, according to the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Many of them are sent back where they came from, never reaching Australia.
A typical example – the case of John Gulzari
John Gulzari is extremely sick. Sick from the fumes coming from the engine of the small, overcrowded fishing boat. Around him, cramped tightly together are almost 40 men, women and children. Many of them just as sick as him.
For 10-12 days, Gulzari was trapped on an unsafe boat crossing the eastern part of the Indian Ocean from Indonesia, trying to reach the shores of Australia. To him, the journey felt like an eternity.
“The conditions were horrible. It was a very small fishing boat going very slowly. There was almost no food or water and the boat was very overcrowded. We were not sure, where we were heading to, nobody told us. We could not communicate with the captain at all,” he says.
Gulzari, today aged 33, experienced the perils as a young man in 1999. Due to intense fighting in his home area in the central highland of Afghanistan, he was forced to flee.
He sold the land, his family owned, and people smugglers helped him to Indonesia, where he took place on the boat to Australia.
“Most of the nights I thought we were going to drown. I can’t swim, so I was very afraid.”
Eventually the boat was intercepted by an Australian naval vessel that took them to a detention centre near Broome in Western Australia.
“I stayed almost four months in the camp,” Gulzari says. “In the beginning the conditions were good, but as people poured in – at one stage there were more than 1000 people – the conditions got extremely worse. People were accommodated in tents. It was overcrowded everywhere. People were scared.”
Shortly after Gulzari arrived, things in Australia started to change.
Dr Karen Block, research fellow with the RAS at the University of Melbourne says the “race to the bottom” began in 2001. In her opinion, the “Tampa Affair” where the Australian Howard government denied access to the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa, carrying 438 rescued refugees, was a key moment.
“You had 11 September (2001) happening straight afterwards and in the Australian people’s minds the idea of people coming here and the threat of terrorism somehow got mixed together. The Howard government also got a boost in popularity in the polls from the stand they took in that situation,” she says.
Following the “Tampa Affair”, the Australian government came up with a plan to keep asylum seekers from reaching the mainland. The plan was called the “Pacific Solution”, and it gave the Australian Defence Force power to intercept vessels at sea, and transport them to detention centres on Christmas Island, Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and on the island nation of Nauru. The plan was in effect until 2007, when political power changed.
“It was really an interesting time, when the Labor government gained power in 2007, because they brought in some very good policy changes,” said Dr Block.
“For a time asylum seekers dropped out of the media to a large extent, so the government was able to bring in better policies. But they never stood up and said, ‘we actually need to have a more humane way of treating asylum seekers’.”
The change in policies led to the temporary closing of the detention camps in Nauru and on Manus Island in February 2008.
The current prime minister in Australia, Tony Abbott, was elected leader of the Liberal Party in December 2009. With him in charge things changed again, according to Dr Block.
“When he became party leader he immediately brought back asylum seekers to the front pages and started criticising the Labor government for what it was doing. That was an absolutely critical moment. He was more prepared to use asylum seekers as a political issue and then it turned into a disgusting race to the bottom,” she says.
The worst years
Gulzari experienced the consequences of the political changes first hand. After he was released from the detention centre, he was granted a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) but then left alone without any help. After a change of rules he was denied a permanent visa, when the TPV expired.
“It was extremely terrible, extremely horrendous. They told me, that I did not need protection anymore, which was just not true,” he says.
“It was the worst years, because I didn’t know when my case was going to be decided, and I did not have any possibility to see my family. No help was given to me in terms of education or even learning English properly.”
The uncertainty and lack of help has had big consequences for him.
“I have endured a lot of difficulties. It has been tragic and I am very unhappy. I have tried to get rid of the sorrow and sadness and enjoy myself, but it is engraved in my mind so deeply, that I cannot wash it off,” he says.
Anxiety, depression and suicides
Gulzari is far from the only one to experience psychological trauma from staying in a detention facility. The Professor of Developmental Psychiatry and director of the Monash University Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Psychology, Dr Louise Newman, says that consequences have been well-documented for several years.
“In the beginning of the new millennium we documented the impact for the first time, so it is well known. There are no questions, that this is causing harm, and the government knows that, but they are still not doing anything,” she says.
She has been following the development in the detention camps in Nauru and on Manus Island, and she sees the impact of confinement.
“We are seeing high levels of people with mental disorders, especially depression and anxiety,” she says. “Women who are having babies are suffering from depression, and they have to be transported to the mainland because there are no staff and facilities to treat them in the camps.”
There are a lot of kids living in the camps too and according to Newman they are exceptionally vulnerable.
“In the young ones, we are starting to see that they are not developing properly. We are seeing signs of neglect and babies are not eating. They are suffering from anxiety and trauma. They are likely to suffer long-term consequences. We see a lot of distress, self harm and suicidal behaviour,” Newman says.
New policies, worse conditions
Within the last year the policies and rhetoric on asylum seekers has taken a turn for the worse, according to several experts and humanitarian organisations. In July 2013 the Australian coalition-government led by Tony Abbott implemented a policy to turn all boats around and not let any asylum seekers reach the mainland.
The policy was named “Operation Sovereign Borders”.
Following the new policy, the Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison was clear and adamant over the asylum seekers.
“I want to stress all those on Christmas Island who are there now – those who arrived after July 19 will be going to Nauru or Manus Island. There will be no exceptions, whether you’re Syrian, Iranian, single, married, adult, child, they will all be going to Nauru or Manus Island and will not return to live in Australia,” he said in a statement in November 2013.
Since then riots and suicide attempts have been on the rise in the detention camps. Messages that appear on the protester’s placards include: “I’m tired, please kill me” and “Suicide is sweeter than Australia’s dirty policy.”
An anonymous Iranian asylum seeker who has been detained on Nauru for a year has described conditions there as “God’s own hell”.
Humanitarian activists are reporting that the detainees are being tortured, and women and children are subject to sexual abuse.
To Dr Block, the current policy is all about scaring people off.
“The current policy around asylum seekers is all about deterrence. It is wrong because you are punishing one set of people in order to have an impact on other people, basically giving them no hope of settling in Australia,” she said.
On July 7, 53 legal scholars from 17 Australian universities jointly declared that Australia’s “reported conduct under ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ clearly violates international law”.
In the last days of September this year, the Australian coalition government began the process of reinstating the TPV. That immediately sparked protests from humanitarian organisations such as Human Rights Law Centre in Australia.
“The government is doing everything they can to deny the 30.000 refugees in Australia the basic rights to move on with their lives. They are doing everything they can to deny permanent protection to them. These are people that have fled persecution and are in desperate need of, and entitled to, protection,” says Daniel Webb, spokesperson for Human Rights Law Centre in Australia.
The TPV is issued to persons who apply for refugee status after making an unauthorised arrival in Australia. Refugee advocates has described the TPV as “a cruel way of treating people, that leaves them with an uncertain future.”
‘Victory at sea’
The headline of the Newscorp-owned paper The Daily Telegraph on 18 September 2014 is flanked by a picture of Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. Standing on a rock, dressed in a Napoleon outfit, he is overlooking how his mission of sending back asylum seekers is being put into action.
This headline is not a sole example of the “one sided and un-nuanced coverage” of asylum seekers some Australian media have chosen, says professorial fellow at the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ) Wendy Bacon.
“[Newscorp media outlets] have to a large extent contributed to the demonisation of refugees, and this has been going on for years,” she says.
Newscorp, owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, publishes 25 news media outlets in Australia and is the largest news corporation in the country.
While The Daily Telegraph may have the most extreme rhetoric when covering the issue, according to Bacon, other media are also biased in their coverage of the asylum seeker issues.
Pacific Scoop has analysed 20 articles, all published within this year, from ABC News and The Daily Telegraph in Australia.
The analysis finds, that most of the coverage of the issue is unbalanced. Even though, as described earlier in this article, 90 percent of the people arriving by boat to Australia are genuine refugees, the media outlets do not take that aspect into consideration.
In almost all the articles Pacific Scoop looked at, all asylum seekers were described as one group without any distinctions.
According to Bacon, there are fundamental differences between the two analysed media outlets.
“Newscorp is very much aligned with the policies of the government, while ABC News are far more journalistically conservative in their news approach,” she says.
The analysis done by Pacific Scoop shows that both ABC News and The Daily Telegraph categorises asylum seekers as a problem for Australia, and create a narrative around a war between the asylum seekers on one side and the Australian government on the other.
The way of covering the issue creates a fear of the outside world, Bacon says.
“It is a very long and deep problem the way people fear those from the outside, this is not the first time we have had this topic in the media,” she says.
“But it sells, and is designed to attract attention.”
Treating the symptoms, not the cause
Gulzari was finally granted permanent residency in Australia in 2005. He took a factory job to survive and studied English at his own expense. He obtained citizenship in 2007, and is now working as a bus driver and has begun a career in politics.
But it has not been possible for him to get his family to Australia. He said, he has tried his case twice, but both times it was rejected. In the meantime, his father has disappeared back in Afghanistan, presumed dead.
“I am extremely worried for my family. They live under very dangerous circumstances,” he says.
Gulzari says the problems with asylum seekers are not going to go away, “because people are still suffering” in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
“The Australian government is treating the symptoms, not the cause. It is a part of the problem, not the solution,” he says.
Bob Douglas has chaired a group of 35 experts from Australia21, the Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law and the Centre for Policy Development. A new report from the expert group on asylum seeker issues is to be released next Wednesday.
In his personal opinion, something needs to happen now.
“We have not got a long-term strategy in place for managing the regional flow of refugees in a way that is consistent with international obligations. We need to put our hand up and say that we are still a humanitarian nation prepared to take more humanitarian immigrants than we are presently,” he says.
“We are at an impasse. I would like to see a rethink of the long-term role Australia plays. We also have to develop a dialog between non-governmental organisations both here and abroad.”
Louise Newman also believes action is needed.
“The suicides will continue, and there will be more cases. That is entirely predictable if it does not change.”
Gulzari will continue trying to be reunited with his family in Australia.
“I will continue to fight for the rest of my life.”
Pacific Scoop was unable to get an interview with Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison or the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in Australia.
FACT BOX: Asylum seekers in Australia
- 1999 – Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) are introduced (three-year visa)
2001 – “The Tampa Affair”: Norwegian ship rescues 438 asylum seekers near Australia
- The Border Protection Bill is introduced
- The Pacific Solution is implemented – asylum seekers sent to detention camps
- 2004 – The High Court rules that asylum seekers can be detained indefinitely
- 2007 – The Rudd government abolishes the Pacific Solution, detention camps closes
2012 – The Rudd government allows offshore processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea
- Asylum seekers are sent to the re-established offshore processing centre in Nauru
- 2013 – From 19 July asylum seekers will be transferred to Papua New Guinea – called “The PNG Solution”
2014 – The Abbott government gives lowest priority to visa applications from those who arrive by boat
- Government to reintroduce TPV
- Government to create a new visa called “Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV)”
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