Australia has not escaped the refugee crisis that has plagued the rest of the world and now new reports of refugees being held in limbo for years sparked thousands to protest.
Business came to a standstill last week in Sydney and Melbourne – Australia’s largest cities – following a series of demonstrations by Australians. Thousands of Australians were rallying against the federal government’s offshore detention centers, which hold more than 1500 refugees, including children (some of whom are in dire need of medical attention).
What are Offshore Detention Centers?
The Australian offshore detention centers are islands on which asylum seekers coming into Australia are held before processing. They are located on Nauru and Manus, both islands in Oceania. Women, children and families are held on Nauru while single men are held on Manus.
To the government, the centers are places to hold refugees awaiting processing, but to the refugees, human rights activists and the protestors in Australia, they are torturous remote islands with untold suffering. The fact that some of the refugees have spent more than five years on the island and are yet to be resettled has caused many to accuse the Australian government of human rights abuses.
The offshore detention centers were unveiled in 2013 by the then prime minister of Australia Kevin Rudd following a resettlement agreement with Papua New Guinea. According to the agreement, anyone trying to reach Australia by boat would be barred from entering the country and instead be sent to Manus or Nauru for processing first. Manus is part of Papua New Guinea.
As a result of the policy, thousands of people have been sent to the detention centers since. Though the United Nation Refugee Agency, human rights groups and even Australian citizens have called for the abolishment of the centers, the government of Australia has maintained the policy to date.
Allegations of Human Rights Abuse
New reports just released revealing the dire conditions of the health of some of the asylum seekers sparked the recent wave of protests. Australian citizens, of all affiliations, came out to force the government into action and to help the refugees.
According to an August 2018 report from the Asylum Seeker Resource Center (ASRC) called Child Trauma on Nauru-The Facts, most of the asylum seekers have been determined to be refugees under Nauruan law but still have been living on the islands for years.
ASRC determined most of the children on the island are suffering from Traumatic Withdrawal System (TWS) which ASRC says “is most commonly seen in children and young adolescents, and has the clinical features dramatic social withdrawal, with severe reduction or inability to walk, talk, eat, and drink, self-care or socialize.”
Some of the symptoms that ASRC has documented in children on Nauru include:
- suicidal ideation; suicide attempts, in some cases multiple;
- hallucinations; social withdrawal;
- repeated expressions of hopelessness;
- persistent fear, including refusal to leave the home;
- panic attacks;
- flat affect and/or inability to speak;
- appearance of cognitive / developmental impairment.
“People are living in detention with no hope, with no future, nothing to live for, nothing to strive for, and nothing to dream about, it’s criminal; the behavior of our government and the government before it. Our politicians have been disgusting,” said Jimmy Barnes as reported by the Guardian.
Barnes is an Australian rock icon and was worried the country is becoming a joke on the world stage. “My friends in America, they’re all fighting their own demons with Trump, but they all look and say: ‘man your human rights record is worse than ours.’ We should stand back as a country and say; ‘how can we help?’ Not be afraid,” he added.
Following the pressure, Scott Morrison, the prime minister of Australia, sent a team to bring in some of the sick children from the centers. Eleven were taken, leaving behind about 52. “Those numbers are coming down and we will continue to work on that,” Morrison told reporters in Sydney. “We have just been getting on and doing it like a responsible and compassionate government should,” he added.
But even as small steps were taken to improve the situation, the Australian government still maintains that the offshore detention centers are necessary, as they discourage not only dangerous ocean crossings by asylum seekers and refugees, but also human trafficking.
There are 1600 refugees currently in the centers, with Manus holding 750 men and Nauru holding 850 men, women and children. Only a few children have been allowed to leave the centers in search for medical attention. It remains to be seen whether the refugees will be resettled and whether the centers will be abolished altogether.