Australia Can't Sit Back And Let Asylum Seekers Languish

07/09/2015 5:15 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
Handout via Getty Images
MANUS ISLAND, PAPUA NEW GUINEA - OCTOBER 16: In this handout photo provided by the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship, facilities at the Manus Island Regional Processing Facility, used for the detention of asylum seekers that arrive by boat, primarily to Christmas Island off the Australian mainland, on October 16, 2012 on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. The Australian government announced in a joint press conference with Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill that all asylum seekers that arrive at Christmas Island or the Australian mainland will be processed and resettled in Papua New Guinea. (Photo by the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship via Getty Images)

Every day I get to see the best and worst of people. I read about and meet people and families who have endured injustice, torture, rape, had family members killed and murdered.

As part of an international human rights network, it is particularly disappointing to know that many of these horror stories are happening under our government's watch, and in Australia's name.

Sexual harassment, violence and indefinite detention in appalling conditions, with overflowing toilets, leaky tents and overwhelming heat: these are just some of the reports coming out of Australian-run detention centres both on and offshore.

I say 'reports' because most of this is taking place in secret, behind closed doors.

Amnesty International has three times been denied access to the Australian-run Nauru Detention Centre, preventing the organisation from reviewing conditions and treatment, or hearing allegations of abuse from people first-hand.

At the heart of these horrific news stories and alleged abuse is the government's obsession with stopping people from seeking safety in Australia.

A key part of this draconian asylum seeker policy is offshore detention and mandatory detention, including children. As part of this jail-like system Australia's 'Regional Resettlement Arrangement', has seen all people seeking safety by boat sent for detention on Nauru and Manus Island.

The government will not allow any of these people to reach safety in Australia. Instead, they may be resettled on the small, remote and poor Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, or wait years for resettlement in a third country like Cambodia.

In February 2014 this government policy reached a tragic new low: the death of a 23-year-old asylum seeker, Reza Berati, and injury to many others, at the hands of staff at the Manus Island Detention Centre and local PNG Police. All under Australia's watch.

Adding to the veil of government secrecy around the treatment of asylum seekers, in the first week of July this year, the Australian Government's Border Force Act came into operation. The Border Force Act, which threatens staff with up to two years in prison if they publicly report the abuses they witness is a continuance of the Australian Government's actions to ensure that conditions and treatment of asylum seekers in its offshore detention centres are kept from the public.

We would likely deem any staff member prosecuted and imprisoned by the government for revealing to the public information about human rights abuses committed in Australia's immigration detention a 'prisoner of conscience', imprisoned unjustifiably for their criticism of the government.

Such measures would place Australia alongside other governments who imprison those who speak out in defence of human rights, such as Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and Cuba.

In December 2014 the Australian government struck a bargain with cross-bench Senators and agreed to release all children from detention in Australia, admitting that detaining children is not an effective deterrent to asylum seekers arriving by boat.

There are 88 children in detention on Nauru, one of Australia's two offshore centres which has been riddled with abuse allegations. Some children detained on Nauru are slowly being moved temporarily into the community, leaving uncertainty hanging over their futures. Others have been deported but at this rate, the children will suffer in detention for at least two more years before being moved on.

The government is robbing each one of something that can't ever be returned: their childhoods.

As we face the worst refugee crisis since World War II, with more than four million Syrian refugees struggling to survive in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, the Australian government must decide which side of history it wishes to stand on.

Despite a third of the world's refugees residing in the Asia Pacific and the recent crisis in south-east Asia, leaving thousands of people seeking safety adrift at sea with no hope of rescue, Australia has refused to take in people seeking safety, as they wait in limbo in Indonesia, and refused to help search and rescue people stranded at sea.

It also continues to punish those who seek safety on our shores.

When the average person seeking safety can wait decades to be settled through the UN, Australia can and should do more than sit back and watch them languish from afar.

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