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Australia Accused of Deliberately Ignoring Offshore Refugee Abuse

  • Phil Mercer

FILE - Asylum-seekers look through a fence at the Manus Island detention center in Papua New Guinea, March 21, 2014.

FILE - Asylum-seekers look through a fence at the Manus Island detention center in Papua New Guinea, March 21, 2014.

Australia is being accused of ignoring the mistreatment of refugees held on an island in the South Pacific as part of a policy to deter other asylum seekers trying to reach its territory by boat. The claims are being made in a report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which secretly traveled to Nauru to document the conditions at an Australian-funded detention facility. The government has yet to specifically respond to the allegations.

Asylum seekers intercepted while trying to reach Australia by boat are sent to camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, a tiny South Pacific republic. The government in Canberra has previously insisted the policy was about saving lives at sea by convincing others not to make the same hazardous voyage.

But a new report by human rights groups claims that a failure to address the “inhumane treatment” of those held on Nauru appears to be a deliberate plan to “inflict suffering” to deter future migrants from arriving in Australia by boat.

Anna Neistat, senior director for research at Amnesty International, discussed what she saw on the island.

“What I found on Nauru is what I can only describe as a deliberate, systematic abuse. We are not talking about individual cases; we are talking about patterns. And I think it is quite clear - and in fact I do not think the Australian government tried very hard to hide it - that essentially they are making an example of these people to prevent further arrivals by boat,” said Neistat.

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Neistat travelled incognito to Nauru with a lawyer from Human Rights Watch. Since its last visit in 2012, Amnesty International says it has applied for permission to visit the Australian-sponsored detention center six times without success. Their allegations of abuse include violence and intimidation by locals and the denial of medical treatment.

The rights groups spoke to more than 80 of the 1,200 people transferred to Nauru after seeking asylum in Australia, including those from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. Most have been recognized as refugees and live in the Nauruan community.

A spokeswoman for Australia's Department of Immigration and Border Protection said it had not been consulted by Amnesty International about its report.

Last month, a group of doctors challenged secrecy laws that have prevented them from speaking out about conditions they see inside Australia’s controversial immigration detention centers. Doctors for Refugees have argued the measures brought in last year breached constitutional rights to “freedom of political communication.” The case is currently being considered by Australia’s High Court.