Nine reasons to close Manus Island and Nauru prison camps

May 19, 2016
Outside the Transfield AGM in Sydney last October.

Zebedee Parkes, an activist in Sydney's Refugee Action Coalition and member of Socialist Alliance prepared this for Green Left Weekly.

1. Asylum seeker protests in Nauru detention centre for more than 60 days

Protests in the Nauru detention centre started on March 20 and have now continued for more than 60 days in the face of hostility from guards and attempts to stop messages from getting out to the world.

The centre has built multiple fences to separate asylum seekers inside the camp from refugees who have been resettled in the community, many of whom have joined the protest.

The protesters have also held vigils for asylum seekers who have died since the protests started, including Omid, who self immolated, and Rakib. A banner, softly illuminated by candles, read: “Rakib happy freedom”.

The protest on May 19, marking 60 days of continuous protest, involved dozens of mothers and children holding photos of Omid, Rakib and Hodan, who remains in hospital in a critical condition. Photos showed them holding a banner saying “Stop violence against mothers and children”.

2. PNG Supreme court decision

The Papua New Guinea (PNG) Supreme Court on April 26 ruled that detaining asylum seekers in Manus Island detention centre without charge or trial is in breach of the country's constitution. PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill asked the Australian government to make alternative arrangements for the asylum seekers held there.

In what can be seen as an attack on another country's sovereignty and a desire to continue offshore detention at all costs, Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton has not moved anyone out of the detention centre, and has claimed the court's decision does not mean the detention centre has to be shut down.

Manus Island detention centre has a history of mass protests by asylum seekers, including the world's largest hunger strike in January last year, when more than 700 asylum seekers refused food. Now they have begun ongoing protests and marches in the detention centre with banners that say “Free political prisoners of Australia”, “Where is sanctity of law?”, “Stop playing games, every death in PNG and Nauru is blood on your hands” and “Enough trading in our souls”.

One of the asylum seekers sent a message on May 13 that said: “The Supreme Court has ruled that we are free. The Prime Minister of PNG has said that we are free. But the truth is that we are still locked up in this concentration camp.”

Dutton believes there will be no change to the Manus detention centre until after the election.

3. Children abused and babies born into detention

A study by the Australian Human Rights Commission found 95% of children in Nauru are at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder. Four of the babies who are part of the protests in Nauru were born in detention and have never lived in freedom.

In February, doctors in Brisbane's Lady Cilento Children's Hospital refused to discharge baby Asha if she would be sent back to Nauru, which they considered an unsafe environment for a child.

Children in detention centres regularly face abuse at school, including from teachers, with at least one reported assault on a refugee child at school every 13 days.

A former Save the Children worker spoke about parents feeling “powerless to protect their girls from sexual harassment and the dangers present in the detention centre and the community. They thought that by fleeing they were protecting their children.”

Mothers are being forced to have babies in unsafe conditions on Nauru. One mother, Naimia, gave birth by emergency caesarean one month prematurely last week. In the months leading up to the birth she had suffered seizures, high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia. She was medivaced to Brisbane immediately after the birth, and the baby was put on another plane several hours later.

4. Women suffer sexual harassment, assault, illegal abortions

ABC's Lateline reported that at least 20 women have been sexually assaulted in detention centres in the past year. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre's Pamela Curr believes the figure is higher.

Guards have threatened to rape women, stood drunkenly around women's toilets at night and Australian guards are believed to have traded marijuana for sexual favours.

To this day no one has been successfully prosecuted for sexually assaulting an asylum seeker woman on Nauru. The Australian Federal Police only sent two officers to investigate allegations a year after they were made.

On top of this, abortions are illegal in Nauru. One African woman, known only as S99, was raped on Nauru and has requested an abortion. Only after a Federal Court ruling did Dutton agree to let her have a safe and legal abortion in Australia, after initially sending her to Port Moresby for the operation. Abortion is illegal in PNG so medical staff lack the facilities for such an operation.

5. Suicide attempts

This year there have been regular suicide attempts on Nauru, including teenagers drinking washing powder. Hodan, a 21-year-old Somali woman remains in a critical condition in Brisbane hospital after self-immolating.

Omid, in act of desperation, self immolated in front of UNHCR officers and died shortly after without receiving adequate medical treatment. Since their inspection of Nauru, UNHCR has called for an immediate end to Australia's program of offshore re-settlement and detention.

Dutton has blamed refugee activists for the spate of suicides. In fact, refugee activists have consistently worked to encourage asylum seekers to not self-harm and research shows it is Australia's detention centres themselves that lead to mental illness and self harm.

6. Abuse and violence by guards

The most extreme case of violence by guards was Reza Berati, the 23-year-old Kurdish refugee who was murdered by guards in Manus Island detention centre in February 2014. In April this year two PNG guards were convicted of involvement in his death, but the Australian guards accused of involvement never stood trial.

This is not the only time Australian guards have appeared to be immune. Three accused of drugging and raping a local woman on Manus Island in July last year were flown off the island before they could stand trial.

7. Health conditions

Apparently healthy young asylum seekers have died as a result of the conditions they are forced to endure, including living in mouldy tents in tropical conditions with dozens of other people.

International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), which manages health services on Manus Island and Nauru for the Australian government, has been accused of not giving adequate medical assistance and medevacing very ill people too late. An example is Hamid Khazaei, who had a simple cut to the foot that became infected, but died when it turned septic and proper medical treatment was delayed.

The latest death on Nauru is Rakib, a 26 year old Bangladeshi man who died from suspected heart failure after being held on Nauru for 29 months. He admitted himself to Nauru hospital on May 9 and died two days later. It is believed he may have overdosed on medications, including panadol, in the days leading up to his death.

8. Secrecy

It is illegal for medical professionals to speak out about what happens in detention centres, including reporting abuse of children. Journalists and human rights observers have restricted access to detention centres.

Service providers have gag orders imposed that prevent staff speaking out about conditions in the camps. Save the Children's contract was not renewed when it refused to accept these conditions.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson Young has been denied permission to visit the camps or to visit Omid's widow.

9. Costs billions

It costs $1 billion a year to run the offshore detention centres. The money goes to private contactors, such as Wilson Security, which was mentioned in the Panama papers and IHMS, which was found to have given inadequate medical care that has resulted in people dying.

On May 18, Dutton accused refugees of: being illiterate in English and their own language; taking Australian jobs; and languishing in unemployment queues.

These claims have been found to be incorrect. But even if they were correct, the money being spent on the detention industry would be better used to provide free English and university courses for everyone and to create socially useful jobs.

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