The Australian Government is being urged by refugee and law experts to allow detention centre staff to report human rights abuses to United Nations representatives without fear of legal reprisals, following a decision by a top UN official to postpone his visit to Australia.
Last week, the UN’s Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants, Francois Crepeau, postponed his trip to Australia, citing protection concerns and the lack of full cooperation from the Government over access to on and off shore detention centres.
In an open letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the 64 scholars, many of whom were due to meet with Crepeau next week in Sydney, said the government could allow detention centre staff to speak to the Rapporteur without the risk of prosecution.
“It has chosen not to do so in this case,” the letter said.
“This calls into question the Australian government’s claim that it is willing to cooperate with UN procedures in good faith.”
The human rights expert was originally scheduled to visit the nation from 27 September to 9 October 2015 to gather first-hand information about the situation of migrants and asylum seekers domestically and in Australian funded off-shore detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
In postponing his visit, Crepeau cited the 2015 Border Force Act, which he said sanctions detention centre service providers who disclose "protected information" with a two-year court sentence.
It would impact on the visit because it served to discourage people from fully disclosing relevant information, he said.
"This threat of reprisals with persons who would want to cooperate with me on the occasion of this official visit is unacceptable,” he said.
“The Act prevents me from fully and freely carrying out my duties during the visit, as required by the UN guidelines for independent experts carrying out their country visits."
The Rapporteur said he had been in discussion with the Australian Government since January 2015 to organise the country visit.
“Since March 2015, I have repeatedly requested that the Australian Government facilitate my access to its off-shore processing centres,” Crepeau said in his statement last week.
“I was also extremely disappointed that I was unable to secure the cooperation needed to visit any off-shore centre, given the international human rights and humanitarian law concerns regarding them, he said.
Crepeau also cited Australian Senate inquiries on the off-shore detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, which “raised concerns and recommendations concerning these centres".
In Tuesday’s letter to Turnbull, the scholars said they were also concerned that the Rapporteur was denied access to Australia’s offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
“Especially in light of the findings that have emerged in recent Australian Senate committee inquiries and independent reports about serious human rights violations in those places,” the letter said.
A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said it was both disappointing and unfortunate the visit had been postponed, and that he Australian government remained ready to arrange a future visit by the Rapporteur.
“The Government accommodated to the fullest extent possible the requests of the office of the Special Rapporteur as it has with past visits,” the spokesperson said.
"A wide range of organisations have visited detention facilities and Regional Processing Centres including the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the UNHCR, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Organisation of Migration and others without the need to respond in this way."
"Australia remains ready to arrange a future visit by the Special Rapporteur."
The ABC on Monday night played a video recording of a Somali asylum seeker on Nauru calling police after she was allegedly raped by two local men on the island.
The 26-year-old woman said she was dragged into the bushes by the pair and raped when she was out walking near a settlement camp in August.
Police took four hours to arrive, and she has heard no update since on the subsequent investigation.
In a series of tweets on Monday night and Tuesday morning the Nauru Government appeared to defend its police:
Nauru is a very safe country & anyone can feel safe walking anywhere on our island - day or night. Claims to the contrary are totally false.— Republic of Nauru (@Republic_Nauru) September 28, 2015
Nauru Police take all complaints very seriously. Like Aust, there must be enough evidence to lead to prosecution before someone is charged— Republic of Nauru (@Republic_Nauru) September 28, 2015
Some police investigations - particularly those with no witnesses & little evidence - take considerable time. This is same in Australia— Republic of Nauru (@Republic_Nauru) September 28, 2015
In July Transfield Services told a Senate inquiry it received 67 allegations of child abuse up to May 2015, and 30 of the allegations were against detention centre staff.
In July the senate inquiry heard 33 asylum seekers allege they have been raped or sexually assaulted at the centre, while another five said they had been asked for sexual favours in exchange for contraband.
Meanwhile two men on trial over the murder of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island have claimed a witness against them signed a false statement “Australian guards.”