Six Danish parliamentarians had planned to travel to the remote Pacific island of Nauru this week for a first-hand view of Australia’s offshore asylum operations. Their visit could have been an important one because access to the island is severely restricted. Nauru has issued visas to only two journalists in the last three years, and just last week turned down a visa request from an Australian senator.
Nauru has stayed true to form with this long-scheduled visit, abruptly telling the delegation just before their scheduled departure that two of its members would not be allowed entry to the island because they have publicly criticised Australia’s offshore operations. In response, the delegation has cancelled the entire visit.
A true picture of the human toll of Australia’s offshore detention regime would not only have exposed the Nauruan and Australian governments to further criticism, it would also have enabled the Danish lawmakers to play a meaningful role in the European debate over establishing offshore asylum processing centers.
That’s important because one of the MPs, Martin Henriksen of the Danish People’s Party, has already described Australia’s offshore detention regime as “an interesting model” that could be replicated by Denmark. Austria’s foreign minister has also suggested that the Australian model’s “principles can be applied in Europe.”
Here’s what the MPs need to know:
Australia’s offshore detention of asylum seekers is modelled on the United States use of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the 1990s as a refugee camp for fleeing Haitians. One reason for offshore centers is that they’re shielded from independent scrutiny—their remoteness makes it difficult for lawyers, the media, and other independent monitors to visit. The offshore nature of these operations also is deployed as a defense to legal accountability. Given those circumstances, it should come as little surprise that abuses are taking place in Nauru.
Australia says its offshore detention policy deters asylum seekers from taking boats to reach Australia and thereby saves lives. But if Australia really wants to safeguard lives and promote protection, it should instead be working harder with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and other states in the region to ensure that those countries have effective refugee protection systems.
As a joint report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International found last month, after we made our way to Nauru to see for ourselves, life is exceedingly difficult for refugees and asylum seekers held on Nauru. From the start, Australia’s officials and its agents have taken every opportunity to send the message to refugees and asylum seekers that they are undeserving of protection and unworthy of treatment reflecting basic human dignity. They have been forcibly transferred from Australia to Nauru in a manner that they uniformly described as deeply humiliating. Once on Nauru, they have spent a year and a half or more crowded into vinyl tents that offered little shelter from the elements.
Accommodations have improved somewhat in the last year for recognized refugees, who are generally housed in open camps or other housing throughout the island. But refugees have little prospect of meaningful employment on the tiny island, which has a local population of 10,000, and their status remains uncertain despite their official recognition as refugees.
Refugees and asylum seekers regularly endure violence, threats, and harassment from Nauruans. But as recently leaked reports show and other sources have confirmed, guards often discourage refugees and asylum seekers from filing reports of physical abuse, including sexual assault. When refugees and asylum seekers have made such reports, senior managers downgraded their accounts and appear to have failed to undertake prompt and effective investigations.
Refugees and asylum seekers also face unnecessary delays in, and at times denial of, medical care, even for life-threatening conditions.
Medical professionals repeatedly warned Australian officials that in combination, the traumatic manner of transfer to the island, abusive conditions of confinement, and uncertainty about the future were taking a tremendous toll on the mental health of refugees and asylum seekers.
When I visited Nauru last month, refugees and asylum seekers told me they had developed sleeplessness, anxiety, paranoia, compulsive behaviors, and depression on the island. Children had stopped laughing, playing, and in some cases, talking. Children and adults described inflicting self-harm, and some spoke openly of wanting to end their lives.
Although they are fully aware of the mental health consequences of the offshore detention regime, Australian authorities demonstrate persistent indifference, indicating that the abuse is at a minimum tolerated as a matter of policy. The failure to address these abuses suggests that over time outright cruelty has become a deliberate part of Australia’s strategy to deter further boat arrivals.
This context is crucial to understanding what offshore detention means in human terms.
Given Nauru’s demonstrated penchant for secrecy and intolerance of criticism, the Danish delegation would likely have struggled to conduct their work with any measure of independence. It’s all too easy, in any inspection of a detention setting, to fall into the trap of seeing only what you’re shown, and failing to uncover what’s harder to find. To avoid coming away with an incomplete picture, the delegation would have had to fact-check claims by Australian and Nauruan authorities. They would have had to assess access to medical care, evaluate mental well-being, and examine the willingness of authorities to investigate, prosecute, and punish assaults and other abusive acts. And most important, they would have needed to talk in private settings to the people detained there.
But the Danish delegation doesn’t need to travel to Nauru to find that Australia’s offshore detention regime is no model for Europe.