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Why does Australia detain asylum seekers in offshore camps?

  • Published at 01:22 am November 13th, 2017
Why does Australia detain asylum seekers in offshore camps?
Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court rejected an application on Tuesday to restore water, electricity and food supplies to an Australian-run detention centre for asylum seekers where nearly 600 men barricaded themselves for a week. The Manus island camp, and another on the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru, have been the cornerstones of Australia’s controversial immigration policies, and strongly criticised by the United Nations and rights groups. But why does Australia detain asylum seekers in offshore detention centres on Pacific islands instead of processing them in the country?

Why does Australia keep asylum seekers in offshore camps?

Australia will not take in asylum seekers attempting to reach the country by boat, as part of Operation Sovereign Borders which was established by former conservative prime minister Tony Abbott in 2013. The Australian government argues the hardline stance stops people from risking their lives at sea and breaks the people-smuggling model, which sees asylum seekers, mostly from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and South Asia, paying to be smuggled into Australia on fishing boats from Indonesia. Senate estimates in May this year revealed the government had spent $3.73 billion since 2013 to run offshore camps.

Is this a new policy?

No, Operation Sovereign Borders is the latest incarnation of the “Pacific Solution”, devised by the then-conservative prime minister John Howard in 2001 which allowed Australia to process “boat people” offshore in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru. In August 2001, Australia denied Norwegian freighter Tampa entrance to its waters, after the ship rescued 433 asylum seekers from a sinking Indonesian fishing boat. The captain of the vessel refused to turn back to Indonesia, and there was a stand-off for several days, during which the Howard government accused the asylum seekers of purposely throwing their children overboard to garner sympathy. Though the claims were false, public sentiment towards foreigners and refugees turned sour, cemented by the Sept. 11 attacks. The Pacific Solution was dismantled in 2008 by prime minister Kevin Rudd, leader the left-leaning Labour government, but his party successor Julia Gillard re-established the camps in 2012.

How many asylum seekers live?

As of September 30, 2017, Australia has 742 men on Manus Island in PNG, according to official data. On Nauru, there are 369 people in detention, including 46 women and 43 children. The country also has 328 people detained on Christmas Island, an Australian territory off the coast of Indonesia. Between 2013 and September this year, 624 people voluntarily returned to their country of origin. So far, no “boat person” detained on Manus or Nauru has been resettled in Australia.

What is happening on Manus island?

Last year, PNG’s High Court ruled that the Manus centre, first opened in 2001, was illegal. As a result, Australia closed the camp last month to transfer the men to a new facility. But the men have refused to leave, even after power and water were cut and food supplies dwindled, saying they feared PNG residents on the island may attack, or that the will be resettled elsewhere in PNG or another developing nation. The relocation of the men was designed to give the United States time to complete vetting of candidates as part of a refugee swap deal that Australia hopes will see it no longer responsible for the detention of nearly 1,400 asylum seekers who have been classified as refugees. Current Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull negotiated the deal with former US President Barack Obama last year. Under the deal, Australia will accept refugees from Central America. Australia this week turned down an offer by New Zealand to resettle some of the refugees held on Manus and Nauru.

What are the conditions in these offshore camps?

Harsh conditions and reports of rampant abuse and self-harm at the camps have drawn wide criticism at home and abroad. Mental health problems are well documented by charities and rights groups. Many asylum seekers suffer from depression, some have sewn their lips and gone on hunger strikes in protest. Others have committed suicide. In 2016, an Iranian man and Somali woman on Nauru set themselves on fire in protest against their treatment on the Island. The Iranian man later died from his wounds. Nauru has been under renewed scrutiny after a newspaper in 2016 published leaked documents detailing reports of more than 2,000 incidents of sexual abuse, assault and attempted self-harm, many involving children. A UN report last year also criticised Nauru for its failure to protect asylum seeker children from sexual abuse. Global rights group Amnesty International in 2016 said the prison-like conditions on Nauru amounted to torture - a claim that Prime Minister Turnbull rejected at the time. There are no plans to close the camp in Nauru.
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