Breaking refugees spirits: Australia's offshore processing
Prospects for refugees processed on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea look bleaker than ever amid more accounts of depression and abuse at Australia's offshore detention camps.
Prospects for refugees processed on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea look bleaker than ever.
Any unauthorised maritime arrival entering Australian waters is sent to Manus or Nauru for processing and resettlement in a participating regional state but not Australia.
While processing moves at a glacial pace, those already found to be refugees still face uncertainty, abuse and difficult conditions, as Johnny Blades reports.
The hundreds found to be refugees on Nauru are typically unable to support themselves, struggle with a mercilessly hot climate and integrating into a local community with mixed feelings about them. A small number of these refugees were desperate enough to take up Australia's offer of resettlement in Cambodia which has a history of forcibly deporting asylum seekers to China at gunpoint. In Manus, of around a thousand detainees, 87 have been found to be refugees. But they have languished in a transit facility for months while the PNG government drags the chain on administrative matters around them fully entering the community. Human Rights Watch's Elaine Pearson says mental health problems are rife among this group which includes skilled workers such as a doctor and en engineer
ELAINE PEARSON: I think some of them are resigned to the fact that they're never going to make it to Australia and they're really trying to make the best of a bad situation. They're trying to sort of contact companies, they want to move on with their lives, they want to get jobs. However for some of the men, particularly those who were traumatised by the riots and the violence that they experienced last year, the night that Iranian Reza Barati, was killed, I think for a lot of those people, they're still very fearful of locals, they think that it's an unsafe environment.
The Governor of Manus Charlie Benjamin says the local community has been unfairly portrayed as hostile to the refugees.
CHARLIE BENJAMIN: You just need to come to Manus and see how freely they walk around, go to the markets, go to the shops, some of them even go and have drinks with some of these gentlemen, even late in the night, so I don't think that's really true.
However he is frustrated at the government's slowness in finalising a refugee resettlement policy, saying the community could use the skills of some of the refugees.
CHARLIE BENJAMIN: Well definitely, we need them in Manus, we need them in Papua New Guinea. But it's the administrative matter which the minister and the immigration and how they're dealing with this that is delaying all of these things. Even I am not quite happy with what is happening but... like I said, it's something that is probably beyond me.
Meanwhile, an Australian Senate Inquiry has heard testimony about what has been going on at Nauru. Transfield Services, which runs the Nauru camps, said there have been 67 child abuse allegations at the facility but not a single staff member accused of abusing an asylum seeker has been charged for an offence. A former child and youth recreation worker at Nauru, Samantha Betts, told the inquiry she submitted numerous reports to her employer Save the Children and contractor WIlson Security in relation to the emotional and physical abuse at the camp.
SAMANTHA BETTS: Within the camp, children were directly exposed to lip sewing with staples, attempted suicide by hanging, attempted suicide by wrist slitting, mothers attempting to terminate pregnancies through starvation, high rates of depression and other mental health issues, as well as verbal and physical violence between members of the camp. I know this because the children told me.
Another former social worker at Nauru, Natasha Blucher was one of a group ordered off the island last year after Australia's government fingered her and other Save the Children workers for coaching detainees to harm themselves and fabricate abuse stories. An independent review later cleared the workers, finding no evidence. She told the inquiry there appears to be a significant disconnect between the understanding of the Nauru facility's management who are located in Australia and the actual implementation of policy on the island. Ms Blucher says the conditions are extremely difficult for detainees who are de-humanised and generally suffer violent deterioration of mental health.
NATASHA BLUCHER: And when I talk about violent deterioration I refer to people collapsing and screaming, people going into states that seem to me to appear to be psychosis, people with incredibly frequent suicidal ideation; people unable to get out of bed, unable to move; you would walk around the camp and you would see people sitting outside their tents and just staring vacantly into nothing.
While detainees at both Nauru and Manus have been experiencing mental health problems and suffering from extreme heat, medical staff are being discouraged by Australia's government from talking about healthcare of asylum seekers. The Australian Border Force Act came into effect this month and provides for up to two years in jail if workers disclose information about conditions at detention centres. However a vocal minority of whistleblowers and refugee advocates continue to alert the outside world on what's going on. In the latest dispatch, the Refugee Action Coalition's Ian Rintoul has spoken about a mother and son who tried to commit suicide at Nauru on Thursday night. The latest incident is connected to a sexual assault on their sister who is a refugee living outside the detention centre.
IAN RINTOUL: In particular, it's the single women living outside the detention centre that are living in fear. There are now a number of documented assaults, allegations of assaults, statements have been made to police and in some instances the victims have actually identified the perpetrators but there is no action. There is simply a complete climate of indifference. They go through the motions. A police car might show up, they'll tell them to come in and make a statement the following day, they do and that's the last that happens. The fact that they can act with impunity in this way has just meant that there has been an escalating number of assaults and reports of assaults that have been happening over the last few months.
Canberra has signalled no intention to change its offshore processing model which it credits for a drop-off in boat arrivals.
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