Refugees defy police, protest Nauru conditions

March 13, 2015
This is a jail cell some of the female refugees were imprisoned for 30 hours and given only one bottle of water to share.

Refugees on Nauru have defied government and police attempts to ban protesting, as the United Nations adds to the growing body of evidence that Australia's asylum policy is violating human rights.

The Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) said 300 refugees held a peaceful protest on March 11, “just one week after Nauruan police staged mass arrests on the island in a bid to stifle the campaign of non-cooperation being waged by the refugees”.

On March 4, 183 people, including children, were arrested and “held for 24 hours without food and without water in some cells”, RAC said. Nauru's government had previously threatened refugees with up to three years in jail for the “crime” of protesting.

Refugees on Nauru are protesting their treatment at the hands of the Australian government; its neglectful and punishing treatment that permeates every aspect of Australia's anti-refugee attitude.

Nauru's appalling refugee camps and other camps holding refugee children were highlighted in the report The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, released by Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs in mid-February.

Among more than 300 pages of evidence, interviews, testimony and statistics, the commission found that: “Children in immigration detention have significantly higher rates of mental health disorders compared with children in the Australian community.”

The report further said that: “Children detained indefinitely on Nauru are suffering from extreme levels of physical, emotional, psychological and developmental distress.”

The commission heard that children were denied education, subject to physical and sexual assaults, and carried out acts of severe self-harm.

This raft of crimes has been added to by the United Nations, beginning with Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez's findings that Australia has “violated the rights of migrants and asylum seekers to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.

His report on allegations of torture worldwide, prepared for the UN Human Rights Council, included Australia's treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. It concluded that Australia had breached the Convention Against Torture in at least four cases:

1. “Indefinite detention of asylum seekers, detention conditions, alleged detention of children, and escalating violence and tension at the [Manus Island] Regional Processing Centre … has violated the right of the asylum seekers, including children, to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.
2. When Australia detained asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, mostly Tamils, incommunicado at sea and returned one group to the Sri Lankan navy, the government was “in contravention of Australia’s non-refoulement obligations” and did not “comply with its obligation, under international customary law, to investigate, prosecute and punish all acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, as codified, inter alia, in the Convention against Torture”.
3. This was also the case concerning “acts of intimidation and ill-treatment of two asylum-seekers, following their statements regarding the violent attacks against asylum-seekers, which allegedly took place between 16 and 18 February 2014 at the Manus Regional Processing Centre”.
4. The Coalition government's two new bills – the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014 and the Migration Amendment (Character and General Visa Cancellation) Bill 2014 – “put Australia at risk of violating the Convention Against Torture”.

Mendez said that by “failing to amend the provisions of the two bills to comply with the State’s obligations under international human rights law, particularly with regard to the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, including children, [the Australian government] has violated the rights of migrants and asylum seekers to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

But, according to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Triggs’ report was “biased” and “partisan”, and Mendez's finding was an example of the UN “lecturing” Australia. Fairfax Media reported on March 11 that Australia had previously, privately rebuffed a different ruling on the “cruel and degrading” practice of permanently detaining refugees with negative ASIO security assessments.

In July 2013 an 18-member UN Human Rights Council condemned the policy, which has caused more than 30 refugees to be indefinitely detained on the basis of secret ASIO investigations, and called for those detained to be released and compensated.

Australia missed the 180-day deadline to respond to the decree. But the government's eventual response, made in December last year but not public before now, “gives no ground to the UN committee finding that Australia was 'inflicting serious psychological harm' on the refugees in indefinite detention”, Fairfax said.

Given this government's continued drive to strip refugees and asylum seekers of all humanity, refugees on Nauru are seizing what little power they have to protest this damning chain of evidence. Despite being at the mercy of an aggressive police force and contemptuous government, on an isolated island with few allies, they have taken a brave stand.

They need the support of Australians to help break through the government silence and continue their fight for freedom.

Refugees from across Nauru protest on March 11 at the Nibok camp. Photo: Refugee Action Coalition Sydney

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