Government block scrutiny of refugee camps

May 31, 2013
Dateline's footage of Manus Island.

As asylum seekers face years of detention in the Nauru and Manus Island detention camps, where not a single claim has been assessed, the Australian government refuses to answer to scrutiny or calls for human rights oversight.

The ABC’s Four Corners and SBS’s Dateline have now tried to investigate the conditions inside each “regional processing centre”. The camps are believed to be abysmal, inadequate and places of widespread physical and psychological breakdown among detainees.

Yet Nauru has had scarce visits from media and independent monitors, and every journalist that has tried to enter the Manus Island centre to see the conditions of the offshore camp where Australia is holding children, has been turned away with dubious excuses.

Dateline documented this firsthand when journalist Mark Davis visited Manus Island, the footage of which was aired on its program on May 28. The Australian immigration department told Davis that the block to visit the camp was “coming from Papua New Guinea … They grant or deny access”.

But Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, who supports the centre, said PNG had no restrictions on journalists going to Manus Island: “I can assure you that you are free to go to Manus any time you want to …

“I can tell you without any hesitation whatsoever, that there is no restriction on our part.”

At the actual camp, Davis’ application to visit was accepted by the PNG operators, only to have permission quickly withdrawn by the Australian department of immigration. An Australian official permanently based inside the camp was refusing to allow Australian-contracted security guards to escort Davis in.

Dateline asked the question, who was really keeping journalists and investigators out? After trying fruitlessly to get inside, Davis said: “There is nothing regional about this secretive regional refugee processing centre and there's no processing either. The local tag, 'The Australian prison', does seem more accurate.”

Child advocacy group Children Out Of Detention (ChilOut) was also thwarted when it tried to visit the centre in February to see children and families inside.

ChilOut campaign director Sophie Peer said there was no way to know for certain why they were refused visas to Manus Island. “The reality was that many processes seemed to be made up on the spot and changed constantly throughout the lengthy application. This is an Australian-run detention facility and Australian authorities completely wiped their hands of any involvement in us gaining access to the Manus Island RPC.”

Perhaps even more surprising was when a formal request by the Australian Human Rights Commission to visit the offshore centres was also refused by the government. Commission president Gillian Triggs was told by the solicitor-general she could not visit Nauru or Manus Island to investigate human rights complaints because it was outside her jurisdiction.

Triggs said: “The power to inquire into these complaints may only be exercised in Australia.”

The fact that Triggs can be denied oversight of Australian-initiated and Australian-funded camps simply because they are on another country’s soil is a clear reason why offshore processing is a convenient legal loophole that denies refugees their rights under Australia’s law.

It perpetuates uncertainty for asylum seekers, who have no way to know how or when their claims for protection will be assessed. It is also a key contrivance of the Australian government to refuse open inquiry and accountability.

The government’s rabid refusal to answer to any evidence of the conditions in its offshore detention camps was demonstrated when it attacked Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young for sharing photos taken covertly inside the camp.

Hanson-Young visited the camp in February, just before immigration minister Brendan O’Connor also inspected the camp and deemed it “adequate”. But Hanson-Young said her experience and the photos revealed a situation far worse than expected: “These images are an indictment on our nation and it is time for this inhumanity to end.”

Four Corners was only able to reveal details of life inside the camps by smuggling cameras to detainees, who caught shaky footage of the muddy and rundown set up. They have been told that the seemingly transient and unfinished tents, amenities and portable buildings will be their quarters for five years or more, and no one has had a substantial interview with anyone from immigration about their claims for asylum.

So it is no surprise that when Dateline and Four Corners did manage to get details out — via interviews with guards, former staff and phone calls with detainees — they found stories of waves of suicide attempts, hangings, self-harm, self-destructive violence and a widespread psychiatric crisis.

One guard told Dateline: “They go crazy. They start cutting themselves, trying to hang themselves.”

Another guard said the reason why was that: “They said… we can’t tolerate this place, it is such a hell and we are going to stay here for a long time. It’s better we die here than have Australian guards torturing us.”

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