Those who think that blatant human rights violations are confined to despots and dictators may be surprised by Australia, whose stranded boat people face a further loss of hope as America’s new president shows no sympathy for their plight.
Since 2013, by law, no asylum-seeker arriving by boat can ever settle on Australian soil. They are sent for “offshore processing” at detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, where they largely remain.
There are around 2000, from a mix of Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries – many are children. Most qualify as refugees and are owed Australia’s protection. They are not getting it: conditions are dire. Doctors and caseworkers report rape, child abuse, sexual assault, harassment, violence, escalating mental illness and self-harm. Two guards murdered an asylum seeker on Manus. Medical facilities are grossly inadequate, subject to a battle between doctors and the government as to whether Australian doctors should deliver care to Australian, or local standards. (Dr Grim leaves it to you to guess which is the government’s choice.)
In 2014 the UN Committee Against Torture said Australia’s asylum policies violated the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment. The chief psychiatrist accused the immigration department of creating conditions designed to coerce asylum seekers into returning home, however dangerous that might be. He called this torture and was put under police surveillance for his pains. Other doctors spoke to the Australian Human Rights Commission (whose boss came under government pressure to quit), and in 2015 the UN general assembly expressed grave concerns..
The government attempted to silence internal dissent with the Border Force Act of June 2015, which criminalised whistleblowing by anyone working for the immigration Department, but Australia’s doctors defied this, saying that standing by and watching gross violations of human rights was more than they could stomach. In August 2015 case files leaked to the press detailed more misery and abuse on Nauru, and in February 2016 doctors at a Brisbane hospital refused to discharge a newborn infant of asylum seekers, saying that returning her to Nauru would be unsafe. The Australian Medical Association called the government’s asylum-seeker policy ‘state sanctioned child abuse.”
In April 2016 Omid Masoumali died after self-immolating on Nauru. In May Hodan Yasin survived a similar attempt. In July doctors challenged the government in court, and won exemption for health professionals from the whistleblowing gag, but nothing changed for the refugees. Polls suggests most Australians believe they should be admitted to Australia, but they remain stranded as human deterrents to those who consider escaping tyranny and oppression by boat, like a dying crow strung up in a field. A deal to resettle 1250 of them in the US, agreed by Obama, now appears to be collapsing under Trump. Meanwhile Australia requires all permanent visa applicants to sign a shared values statement which begins with “respect for the equal worth, dignity and freedom of the individual.” Irony indeed.