Three important recent events are intensifying the pressure on the federal government and opposition over their bipartisan cruel treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, particularly those held in offshore detention.
The first event was the tabling of a damning UN report, the second was the world premiere of a new documentary, Chauka Please Tell Us the Time, (filmed inside the Manus Island prison) and the third was news of an out-of-court settlement by the federal government over the wrongful imprisonment of detainees on Manus Island.
UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Francois Crepeau, visited Australia on a UN mission in November, which included a visit to the Nauru regional processing centre (RPC). Crepeau’s report was finally tabled at the UN Human Rights Council in June.
The report was extremely critical of Australia’s policies towards refugees and asylum seekers, particularly those who have come by boat. It said these policies “have increasingly eroded the human rights of migrants, in contravention of the country’s international human rights and humanitarian obligations.”
The report calls on the Australian government to “develop and implement a human rights-based approach to migration and border management, ensuring that the rights of migrants, including irregular migrants, are always the first consideration.”
The report characterises aspects of Australia’s border management as strongly focused on “securitisation and punishment” and which discriminated against people fleeing to Australia by boat, in contravention of international human rights and humanitarian obligations.
The “punitive approach to unauthorised maritime arrivals” includes the practice by Border Force personnel of turning back boatloads of asylum seekers and so-called “enhanced screening” practices, that is screening asylum seekers while they are still at sea.
The report noted that at all levels, those fleeing by boat to Australia “face obstacles that other refugees do not face, including arbitrary, mandatory and prolonged detention periods, transfer to regional processing centres, indefinite separation from their family, restrictions with regard to social services and no access to permanent residence and citizenship. They experience their treatment as harsh punishment for a crime not committed.”
The report was also critical of the powers awarded to the minister and the lack of access to review or to challenge ministerial decisions as not giving “the appropriate level of oversight” to Australia’s judiciary.
The separation of families living in Nauru or on Manus Island and the denial of family reunion for holders of a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) or Safe haven Enterprise Visa, also came under scrutiny. The report criticised the fact that TPV holders are not eligible for permanent residency or citizenship at all under Australia’s policy.
Regarding Australia’s system of mandatory detention, the report noted that the average time in immigration detention is 454 days, but noted that Crepeau had interviewed people “who had been in detention for over seven years”. The report noted that such prolonged and indefinite detention has a profound effect on mental health, “with many cases reported of self-harm, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression” and concluded that such conditions “amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”.
The issues of indefinite detention resulting from ASIO negative assessments and the discriminatory requirement for refugees to adhere to a “code of behaviour” in fear of being re-detained or returned to their country of origin were also highlighted. The report recommending that the “code” should be scrapped.
The most damning of all was the report’s assessment of Australia’s offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. Contrary to the Australian government’s insistence that it takes no responsibility for what goes on in these prisons, the UN report asserts that the centres and the detainees within them are under the effective control of Australia and the Australian government is “ultimately accountable for any human rights violations that occur in the regional processing centres based on Nauru and Papua New Guinea”.
“Australia’s responsibility for the physical and psychological damage suffered” by detainees in offshore centres “is clear and undeniable” and their treatment “constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment according to international human rights law standards”.
The report concludes that “regarding human rights abuses, the system cannot be salvaged”.
“Terminating the offshore processing policy, quickly closing down the regional processing centres ... and repatriating all asylum seekers and refugees to the Australian mainland seems to be the only possible short-term solution if Australia is to remedy the systemic human rights violations that this policy creates.”
The UN report was tabled just a few days prior to the world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival of Arash Kamali Sarvestani and Behrouz Boochani’s film Chauka Please Tell Us the Time. A Kurdish journalist and writer, Boochani fled Iran for Australia, and has been held on Manus Island for three years.
The film, shot entirely on a mobile phone from inside the Manus hell-hole, is a moving account of the realities and despair detainees suffer at the hands of the Australian government. [See a review of the film by Zebedee Parkes here.]
A matter of days after the film’s release, on June 14, news came of a landmark $70 million compensation settlement between asylum seekers on Manus Island and the federal government arising from a class action on behalf of 1905 men, 800 of them still detained on Manus Island.
The case, brought by Slater and Gordon, argued that the men had been falsely imprisoned and subject to conditions that caused them physical and psychological harm.
Responding to the news from inside the Manus Island detention centre, Behrouz Boochani told supporters on social media: “Today for the first time we could smell justice after four years.
“This agreement proves that the government recognises its crimes in this prison and accepts that it has violated human rights. Although getting compensation is a part of justice for us, getting freedom in a safe place is more important than anything.
“We came to Australia legally seeking protection under international laws but were exiled by force to this island and imprisoned for four years, and have been damaged physically and mentally.
“This compensation is not enough to cover all of the crimes that the government has committed against us. It is important that the government is condemned.”
The government is denying any liability and a settlement out of court will avoid the public scrutiny of a lengthy trial.
[See a full report here.]
According to an ABC Lateline report on June 13, more than 80 compensation cases have been brought against the immigration department since January 2015, the majority being settled before going to court, with plaintiffs awarded significant payouts and carrying strict confidentiality agreements.
Documents obtained under a Freedom of Information request lodged by the Australian Lawyer's Alliance reveal that between 1999 and 2011, the immigration department paid $23.4 million in compensation to people who had been held in Australian-run immigration detention centres.
On July 19 it will be four years since ALP Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s “PNG Solution” began. To mark this date, GetUp!, along with refugee action and advocacy organisations across the country will be holding protests in capital cities and regional towns.
The call is growing to close the camps and bring refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru to Australia.