The smuggling of cameras inside detention camps on Nauru and Manus Island by the ABC's Four Corners has added to pressure on Labor to answer for the shocking conditions in which men, women and children are being held.
Footage that was aired on April 29 showed rows of muddy tents, derelict amenities and ablution facilities and image after image of people who are losing the will to live.
Interviews with a former doctor at the Manus Island camp and Salvation Army workers described the inadequate and under-resourced medical services and the frequent incidents of self-harm and attempted suicides.
Dr John Vallentine, formerly employed by International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) at the Manus camp, told Four Corners: “These people really ought not be there. They ought not be in Manus Island. It's just too remote and the medical facilities are quite inadequate.”
He treated a boy with anaphylaxis and a girl with anaemia and said they should never have been sent to the island. He wrote to IHMS outlining his concerns, but nothing happened.
He said: “That child [the girl] should never have been sent. IHMS at Christmas Island is in charge of the selection process and um, I was really quite upset about that.”
After the program aired Labor Senator Doug Cameron called the Manus Island camp a “mistake” and said that women and children should be immediately returned to Australia. “It's a penal provision against people seeking refuge, and I don't think that's appropriate.”
The Australian Council for International Development and the Australian Greens also publicly called for the removal of children from Manus Island.
The push for children to be removed from the Manus detention camp have also come from the Age. A May 3 editorial titled “Locking up children is contrary to who we are” called child detention “heinous” and “state-sanctioned cruelty”.
Immigration minister Brendan O'Connor has defended the camps, saying that when he inspected the facilities last month they were “adequate”.
However, inspections by independent observers, reporters and advocates have been severely limited, so for many, the Four Corners footage is the first they've seen of what these places are really like.
Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs told Four Corners that when she tried to visit the centres she was told they were outside her jurisdiction.
“What is absolutely crystal clear as a matter of international law is that Australia is responsible for the lives and wellbeing and legal rights of these people, and as human rights law is at the core of my job, I would have thought it appropriate that I be invited to go there and to make some kind of visit to the people concerned.”
Despite rumours that the immigration department is drawing up plans to return families to Australia amid health concerns, O’Connor said at least 30 children would remain on Manus Island.
He told media the “composition” of refugees in the camp would not change, because keeping children and women in the appalling conditions on Manus Island is supposedly what will stop more children getting on boats.
But Australia is already drawing more boats with women and children, such as the boat that arrived at Geraldton last month.
This is not because the threat of Manus Island or Nauru is insufficient. The notion that cruel and atrocious treatment is an effective “deterrent” ignores all the reasons people actually get on boats.
A key reason more women and children are taking the boat journey for asylum in Australia is because Labor’s “bridging visas” deny many people from applying for family reunion, and face years of waiting.
It is the same reason hundreds of women and children were aboard the SIEV X asylum boat in 2001, which sank and killed an estimated 353 men, women and children. They were trying to unite with family members who were living on temporary protection visas.
The conditions on Manus Island and Nauru exposed by Four Corners show that the system of offshore processing of asylum seekers is barbaric and needs to be shut down immediately. The Australian government needs to respect the right to seek asylum, end mandatory detention and allow asylum seekers to live in the community while their claims are processed.