Australia’s Policy on Refugees and Asylum-Seekers “fits the definition of torture”

*Author’s note: all quotations are taken from this report by Amnesty International, unless otherwise noted.

Australia’s current policy on refugee and asylum-seekers is that “no person who arrives in the country by boat seeking asylum can ever settle in Australia” (4). This is in direct contravention of the 1951 Refugee Convention, a United Nations Convention “[g]rounded in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of human rights 1948, which recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries” (2, UNHCR Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees).

In a sixty-eight page report released on October 17, 2016, Amnesty International details the numerous human rights violations experienced by refugees and asylum seekers who arrive by boat hoping to settle in Australia, but who are moved to the island of Nauru for detainment and processing. Through agreements with the island of Nauru, Australia has set up an offshore processing system, pays for the entire cost of detaining and processing refugees on Nauru, and is the “authority responsible for the systematic human rights abuses documented” by Amnesty International’s researchers (6).

As identified by Amnesty International’s report, the human rights brought to bear on the experiences of refugees on Nauru include the following:

  •  Non-refoulement – i.e. the ban on transfer to a real risk of serious human rights violations
  •   The ban on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment
  •   The right to security of the person – i.e. freedom from injury to the body and the mind, or bodily and 
mental integrity
  •   The right to life
  •   The right to liberty
  •   The ban on arbitrary detention
  •   The right to equality before the law
  •   The right to a fair trial
  •   The right to freedom of expression
  •   The right to health
  •   The best interests of the child principle
  •   The right to education
  •   The right to family life
  •   The right to seek and enjoy asylum
  •   The right of refugees not to be penalized for irregular entry
  •   The right to leave any country” (15 & 16).

As just a few examples of how these rights are violated with respect to the lives of the refugees and asylum-seekers on Nauru, the report discusses research findings on health care, assaults on children, children’s school attendance, and incidents of violence towards refugees and asylum-seekers by the local Nauruan population.

In regards to health care, Amnesty International alleges that the health care provided on Nauru is insufficient or non-existent as patients with “serious heart and kidney conditions, improperly healed broken bones causing constant pain and disability, complications from diabetes, gynecological and urological problems, infections, skin diseases, and other ailments do not appear to have been treated in a timely way, despite individuals having multiple appointments with IHMS medical staff” (25). Calling an ambulance entails significant wait time, or for an ambulance not to be dispatched at all (26). In April of 2016, a young man named Omid Masoumali set himself on fire. As he did so he is heard to have yelled “This is how tired we are, this action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it anymore” (19). The doctors working at the time were unable to treat him quickly and proficiently, with one service provider observing that “He [Omid] would have survived – he had less than 50% burns; it seemed like the doctors didn’t know what to do in such cases and were just experimenting” (25).

In the Nauru Files, (compiled by The Guardian), incident reports from the detention centre on Nauru between the years of 2013 and 2015 are organized by type that include “threatened self-harm,” “assault,” and “assault on a minor.” Of these, the category of “threatened self-harm” is the incident type with the most reports for the years 2014 and 2015, with 2014 seeing 177 incident reports, and 2015 seeing 155 incident reports. Two of the reports from 2015 contain the expressions of pregnant women who see their situation on Nauru as so hopeless and untenable that they desire their own death and the death of their unborn baby so that others “understood it was ABF’s [Australian Border Force] fault for making her have to kill herself and her baby,” and so “that she and her unborn baby would be [the] next [deceased Syrian child washed up on shore] and then everyone in Australia would then care” (See reports for October 15, 2015, and September 24, 2015). Authors of the UN Refugee Agency’s reports on the mental condition of refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru note that “[i]t appears that PTSD and depression have reached epidemic proportions,” and the “UNHCR anticipates that mental illness, distress and suicide will continue to escalate in the immediate and foreseeable future” (McKenzie-Murray).

Children experience verbal, physical and sexual assault by staff members of service providers on Nauru, and other individuals on the island. The Guardian’s incident reports note 57 reports of assault on a minor in 2015, a number of them committed by guards of the Processing Centre. The report notes the story of Nahal, a six year old girl who was sexually assaulted after the family gained refugee status and were living outside of the Processing Centre on Nauru. Traumatized by the incident and having to give a statement twice (at least once without a guardian or child psychologist present) Nahal “does not go to school, does not play, and is always scared” (62). Her “condition continue[s] to deteriorate, including increased anxiety and nightmares,” and she takes a strong antidepressant every evening (62). Ben Doherty notes that “[n]ineteen cases of violence and sexual assault – including eight against children – were referred to Nauru’s police during the 18 months covered by the Nauru files, an official review has found, but there have been no prosecutions or convictions.”

The majority of children do not attend school or soon stop attending school due to the verbal and physical abuse and harassment they experience by their teachers and other students. In a report issued on September 30, 2016, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) “found ‘persistent discrimination against asylum seeking and refugee children in all areas’” including “pervasive reports of hostility and hate speech from the local Nauruan community” (32). This hostility from the local population as well as the “[l]iving conditions in the Regional Processing Centres which combined with the lack of certainty for both asylum seeking and refugee children is generating and exacerbating mental health issues, leading to feelings of hopelessness and often suicidal ideation” (32).

This level of aggressive behavior by the local community is also shown towards the adult refugee community through verbal hostility, physical attacks of violence, and sexual assaults. The UN Refugee Agency’s report noted “levels of local resentment on Nauru, a poor and homogenous society, fearful that the proportionately large influx of refugees will diminish cultural purity and economic opportunity. Locals are also aggrieved that refugees serially denigrate their country in the international press, and the UNHCR report makes clear the toxic distrust between refugees and civic society. The result is refugees living in effective ghettos, under constant threat of vigilante violence” (McKenzie-Murray).




As of August 31, 2016, there were 1,159 refugees and asylum-seekers on Nauru. Of these, 749 people live on the island outside of the centre, 410 people live within the Refugee Processing Centre, and 173 are children (13). Amnesty Internationl argues that the “combination of refugees’ severe physical and mental anguish, the intentional nature of the harm, and the fact that the goal of offshore processing is to intimidate or coerce refugees and asylum-seekers to achieve a specific outcome, means that Australia’s offshore processing regime fits the definition of torture under international law” (282).

In addition, by trying to sell this method of processing refugees and asylum seekers to other countries, “Australia’s model of deterrence has already harmed global standards on refugee protection. Because the ‘Australian model’ violates people’s human rights in so many serious ways, it has shifted the parameters of what governments view as ‘acceptable’ so disgracefully far out of line that many governments are now routinely breaching international human rights law and international refugee law” (54-55). This situation cannot continue.

Going forward, Amnesty International lists a number of recommendations, including that Australia “[r]epeal section 42 of the Border Force Act 2015 and other legislation designed to silence people from 
disclosing human rights abuses,” and “[l]egislate to end the detention of children for immigration purposes onshore and offshore” (57). In addition, the report suggests that there are many “achievable policies that are protection-oriented and human rights-compliant” that Australia can consider to remedy the disastrous results of their current refugee and asylum-seeker policies (55). These include private sponsorship programs like the kind adopted by Canada that saw Canadian families sponsor almost 11,000 Syrian refugees since the close of 2015. Lastly, Australia could help refugees access alternative migration streams, thereby receiving an economic benefit but also offering “a safe and legal alternative to irregular migration to Australia” (55).

If you feel called to do something about this, you can sign this petition calling on Australia’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to close the Refugee Processing Centers and bring all refugees and asylum-seekers to Australia.

This blog post was written by a CCLA-PBSC RightsWatch student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the view of the CCLA or PBSC.