Secrecy hides abuse of refugees and government criminality

June 12, 2015
Rohynga refugees. Photo: Lee Yu Kyung.

Reports of physical and sexual violence, including against children, continue to emerge from Australian refugee detention centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Allegations have also emerged that Australian authorities had paid people smugglers to take a boat of asylum seekers away from Australian waters.

But the government has continued to respond with secrecy, vilification of critics and increasingly draconian government measures to prevent information coming out.

In July, the Australian Border Force Act comes into effect. It threatens anyone working in the system — government employees or those working for private subcontractors, whether in Australia or offshore — with two years imprisonment if they publicly divulge anything they have witnessed or learned.

The government has again resorted to attacking Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs and calling for her resignation and it has been revealed that Wilson Security officers, working for the Australian immigration department, spied on Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young when she visited Nauru in December 2013.

Government ministers aggressively dismissed Hanson-Young's concerns, which stemmed from anonymous revelations to a parliamentary inquiry by a former Wilson Security guard that guards kept her under surveillance during her visit, referring to her by the ludicrous codename “Raven”.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said she was not being spied on but was “being, in fact, looked after while she was there,” a response Hanson-Young described as “creepy”, the June 5 Canberra Times reported.

Immigration minister Peter Dutton accused her of “attention seeking” and being an “embarrassment to our country” and said her claims were “complete nonsense”.

He said, “I have evidence that Senator Hanson-Young overstates every issue. She gets her facts wrong most of the time. And I just think you need to look at it in the light of experience with Senator Hanson-Young. If she's got evidence, produce it.”

The June 9 Canberra Times reported, however, that immigration department secretary Michael Pezzullo confirmed the allegations in evidence to the parliamentary inquiry.

Australian politicians couch their anti-refugee policies as combating people smugglers. However, in a June 8 interview with Radio New Zealand, refugee Nazmul Hassan alleged that Australia was actually paying people smugglers to take refugees away from Australia.

In May, Hassan was on a boat carrying 65 Tamil, Rohingya and possibly Bangladeshi refugees that was intercepted in Australian waters, on their way to New Zealand. He alleged that the six crew members were given thousands of dollars by Australian officers to take the refugees back to Indonesia, where the boat was shipwrecked.

A letter to the New Zealand government by Hassan and the other refugees on the boat says they were held in jail-like conditions on a navy ship while the Australians negotiated with the people smugglers until about May 31, when they were given two smaller boats to return to Indonesia.

“Hassan said Australian authorities had burnt their original boat because it had sufficient supplies for them to continue their journey to New Zealand,” the June 10 Sydney Morning Herald reported.

These allegations were confirmed by Hidayet, the chief of police on the Indonesian island of Rote, who told Fairfax Media on June 10: “I saw the money; the $5000 was in $100 banknotes”.

Hidayet said he saw six plastic bags with $5000 each, which the crew claimed had been given to them by the Australians.

At a June 9 media conference, Dutton refused to confirm or deny the allegations. “It’s been a longstanding policy of the government not to comment on on-water matters,” he said.

Government doctrine holds all interactions between Australian authorities and refugees at sea to be a military secret. An immigration department spokesperson told Fairfax Media on June 10: “The Australian government does not comment on or disclose operational details where this would prejudice the outcome of current or future operations.”

Secrecy has been a constant in Australian refugee policy. It is part of the rationale for setting up refugee detention centres in remote Pacific Island nations that are economically dependent on Australia. Nauruan opposition politicians have complained that their country has been sliding toward dictatorship since Australia began warehousing refugees there.

Facebook and other social media sites that refugees used to communicate with the outside world have been shut down and journalists are effectively banned from the island.

But an appalling catalogue of stories of physical and sexual abuse of adults and children, medical neglect, sub-standard living conditions and the deliberate incitement of violent antipathy from sections of the local population, continue to emerge. Often these stories have come from whistleblowers working in the system.

The June 9 Guardian reported that one of these, former Save the Children employee Viktoria Vibhakar, testified to the Senate inquiry into conditions in Nauru (due to report on June 21) that she had documented 30 cases of serious abuse of children as young as two, and that the immigration department and its subcontractors had obstructed parents from reporting the abuse.

Another former Save the Children employee, Kirsty Diallo, told the inquiry that then-immigration minister Scott Morrison was made personally aware of at least one case of serious sexual assault in December 2013, contradicting government denials.

Former International Health and Medical Services mental health director Peter Young told the hearing on June 9 that immigration department officials regularly instructed medical staff to change their diagnoses, particularly in cases where refugees were diagnosed with physical or mental health problems caused by the conditions of their detention.

The government's response has been to target the whistleblowers. The Australian Border Force Act will institutionalise this when it comes into effect. While it is against the law, and medical ethics, for health workers to fail to report child abuse, the new law makes it illegal for health workers to report abuse of refugee children.

The law will also give detention centre guards protection from prosecution, which could effectively mean a licence to kill.

Increasingly, many of the victims of abuse are not technically detainees. Those found to be refugees remain on Nauru or Manus Island because Australia's racist policies deny them the opportunity to ever settle in Australia.

Conditions for these "resettled" refugees are similar to those in detention except that they are at greater risk of mob violence instigated by local employees of the Australian security companies that run the detention centres.

On June 4, three Iranians and a Rohingya, were taken from Nauru to Cambodia in what the June 8 Sydney Morning Herald described as “a top-secret operation with military-style planning”. The resettlement of these four refugees — in an extremely poor country with serious human rights issues, including mistreatment of refugees — has cost Australian taxpayers about $65 million.

It is unlikely that many more refugees will be going to Cambodia and the purpose of this cruel and expensive operation is largely symbolic: to reinforce that refugees arriving in Australia will never be allowed to settle here.

This was also the logic behind the violent June 4 deportation to Nauru of a couple and their Australian-born baby.

The couple had been transferred to Australia from Nauru for the birth because of medical complications. The law was recently changed to deny citizenship or residency rights to babies born in Australia to asylum seekers.

If Australia's refugee policies were aimed at combating people smugglers, the government would not be paying people smugglers to take refugees away. If they were aimed at stopping deaths at sea, the government would be deploying naval resources for search and rescue, not turning boats around.

Neither are the policies caused by Australia's inability to afford a flood of refugees coming here. First, the number of refugees attempting to reach Australia is small compared to most other countries; second, Australia is one of the richest and least densely populated countries on Earth; and, third, the financial cost of Australia's system of persecuting refugees is far, far greater than the cost of settling them here.

In reality these policies are about fuelling racism to divert anger from government attacks on living standards that benefit the wealthy and the corporate sector. This racism reached a level of grotesque irony with the detention of Eddie David at Perth's Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre.

David is Aboriginal, his ancestors having been in this country countless millennia before those of any white Australian. The South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council has vouched for this, although the immigration department obstinately insists he is an “unlawful non-citizen”.

The June 9 Guardian quoted Refugee Rights Action Network spokeswoman Sally Thompson as saying it was the second time David had been held in immigration detention. Five years ago after he attended a Centrelink office, he was detained for several days at the Perth Immigration Detention Centre and released with an apology.

“I'm not a refugee and I'm not an immigrant,” he told the ABC from Yongah Hill on June 9.

“I am Aboriginal, I am an Australian citizen, born and bred of this land. I shouldn't be in this detention centre … But these detainees are helping me. They're shocked that there's an Aboriginal Australian in a detention centre. They say, 'This is your land, you should be out there, not in here'.”

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