Australia’s Inhumane Offshore Asylum Processing

Photo: Reuters

by ELIZABETH AGEGE                                                                                                       Staff Writer


The summer of 2018 highlighted the pitfalls and inhumane nature of the United States’ immigration system, especially as it pertains to immigrants from South American nations. Images of caged children sleeping on the floors of crowded detention centers covered only by aluminum foil blankets circulated through the news cycle as the media revealed the terrifying conditions of the detention centers that immigrants seeking asylum were forced to endure. However, the atrocities committed by the United States against asylees is not the first case of its kind. For years, people seeking asylum, specifically those who unlawfully arrive in Australia by boat, have been taken to offshore detention centers where their asylum claims are processed. Asylum-seekers must stay in these offshore detention centers, namely Nauru Regional Processing Center, for an indefinite amount of time until they are resettled. However, Nauru’s conditions are inhumane, with asylum-seekers’ mental, physical, and emotional well-being constantly jeopardized by the dehumanizing, but for the most part secretive, treatment at the centers. The little information released to the public about Nauru has sparked international outrage, with various countries, NGOs, and supranational organizations condemning the revealed human rights abuses Australia has allowed to take place.

Background on Nauru

The small island nation of Nauru holds a detention center for refugees seeking asylum with one of the worst hidden human rights abuses seen in recent history. However, this was not always the case. The world’s smallest island nation was once a prosperous country, but its economy was ruined by corruption within the government. Nauru is now dependent on foreign aid for survival that mostly comes from Australia. Although Australia provides Nauru with the economic support it needs to survive, the relationship between the two nations is not one based on mutual understanding and shared power. In order to continue to receive foreign aid from Australia, Nauru must strictly adhere to Australia’s demands. One of these demands is to use Nauru for offshore processing. Since 2001, Nauru Regional Processing Centre has been where asylum seekers headed to Australia have been redirected while their applications for asylum are processed. The first group of asylum seekers directed to Nauru were on the ship MV Tampa when “a Norwegian freighter that had rescued more than 400 mainly Afghan Hazara refugees from their sinking vessel in international waters 140km north of Christmas Island was refused entry into Australian waters, in defiance of international law.” The ship was redirected to Nauru in response to the growing number of people seeking asylum in Australia through non-legal means (i.e. by coming by boat). Australia has been dealing with this issue since the mid-1970s, and the rejection of the MV Tampa from entering Australia sent a clear message to those seeking asylum that Australia would no longer tolerate refugees who sought asylum by boat.

Immigration proved to be a controversial issue in Australia’s 2001 election, which helped influence how the country’s leading political party decided to deal with the MV Tampa. The party in power at the time, Australia’s Liberal Party, wanted to stay in power, and decided in favor of the popular opinion to redirect asylum seekers to offshore detention centers. John Howard, the prime minister at the time, made punitive immigration policy a central component of his campaign, saying “We will decide who comes to this country and the manner in which they come.” His campaign was positively received by his supporters within the Liberal Party as well as the opposition, and Howard was re-elected. Since this election, both of Australia’s major parties have supported the existence of offshore processing and detention centers like Nauru, with the Australian public generally accepting the country’s immigration policies, as well. However, smaller parties in Australia such as Paul Stevenson’s Queensland branch of the Australian Democrats have denounced Australia’s actions concerning Nauru, as the conditions the asylum seekers face are atrociously inhumane. Various countries, like India and North Korea, as well as organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have also spoken out against Australia’s cruelty in dealing with refugees.

Conditions in Nauru

Although extensive efforts have been made to keep what happens in Nauru a secret from the public, leaked reports have shown that those who sought asylum in Nauru are suffering greatly. Upon getting to Nauru, the expectation by the refugees is that they will stay for processing and then resettle in Australia once their asylum claims are approved. However, this is almost never the case. Australia’s current policy is that “no person who arrives in the country by boat seeking asylum (plane arrivals are not subject to “mandatory detention”) is ever settled in Australia.” Despite the fact that over 77 percent of those who have sought asylum on Nauru are proven to be actual refugees, none of them are resettled. They are detained on the island for years at a time, with little to no hope of ever leaving the island or achieving normalcy in their lives again. While the disappointment of not reaching Australia after oftentimes enduring treacherous journeys from their homelands is demoralizing as it is, the conditions of the detention centers are an even greater cause for concern. Initially, overcrowding and lack of access to water was a difficult issue to overcome for those in charge of the camp, and at one point, Nauru was temporarily shut down.

However, when Nauru reopened in 2012 a new host of issues presented themselves. The overcrowded conditions and the pervasive, shared sense of hopelessness has resulted in self-harm becoming prevalent among refugees. For example, “One woman attempted to kill herself seven times in five weeks, threatened to kill her own daughter, and had to be sedated to stop her repeatedly bashing her head into the ground; An asylum seeker carved open his own stomach in protest at not being allowed to see or speak with his cousin, who was standing on a roof, threatening to jump; Six boys, held on Nauru without parents, tried to kill themselves en masse, using the same razor blade.”3 The medical emergency code, Code Blue, is the most common code, and the exhausted guards are no longer shocked by the gore they see daily, as it has become part of their routine. They closely watch the refugees as if they were prisoners, which further demoralizes them. Stevenson, a trauma expert, says that these conditions are some of the worst he has seen. Stevenson observed that “you don’t see the positive glimpses, you don’t see the strength of resilience, you don’t see the quirky little things that people do when the chips are down, you don’t see the laughter and you don’t see the bravery, and you don’t see any of those things that give hope for improvement in the lives of these people. Every day is demoralising. Every single day and every night… And it’s that demoralisation that is the paramount feature of offshore detention. It’s indeterminate, it’s under terrible, terrible conditions, and there is nothing you can say about it that says there’s some positive humanity in this.”

The condition of the camp also results in the breakdown of family structures. Children watch the authority figures of their families waste away or try to end their lives. The children see that their parents have no control over their lives, and in turn believe that their parents have no control over them. Children who misbehave often are met with little to no discipline from their parents, who have relieved themselves of their authority over them and allowed the guards to have this power. Stevenson observed an increase in domestic violence among refugees in Nauru, as well.

“…it’s that demoralisation that is the paramount feature of offshore detention…there is nothing you can say about it that says there’s some positive humanity in this.”

Paul Stevenson

Relevant Discussions and Treaties

Australia’s actions towards the asylum seekers has not been accepted without contention. Two asylum seekers, Ahmed Ali Al-Kateb and Abbas Mohammad Hasan Al Khafaji, took their cases to the High Court of Australia. Al-Kateb was a stateless Palestinian who spent most of his life in Kuwait, but sought asylum on Nauru. He was detained for three years and went to court on the grounds of being unlawfully detained. The High Court of Australia held that although it was unlikely he was going to leave in the foreseeable future, his detainment wasn’t unlawful. Al Khafaji, an Iraqi national who fled to Syria with his family in 1980, arrived in Australia in 2000 and was denied asylum but still detained. He also went to court for unlawful detainment. In both cases, the High Court of Australia defended the actions of Australia based on the Migration Act, which says that “Detention must continue until an unlawful non-citizen is either removed from Australia, deported or granted a visa.” However, the United Nations ruled the arbitrary and indefinite detention of these people as illegal and said that “the government should offer compensation to those it incarcerated without charge for up to six years.” This suggestion was made by the UN’s human rights committee, and such a rebuke could harm Australia’s  ambitions to secure a seat on the powerful UN human rights council. Australia’s actions also go against the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It breaches Article 9, specifically, which states that “1. Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law. 2. Anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him. 5. Anyone who has been the victim of unlawful arrest or detention shall have an enforceable right to compensation.” The refugees of Nauru are not safe or free. They are being detained arbitrarily, are not granted permission to leave, and are not being compensated for the abuse they have endured. Australia has used Nauru to punish immigrants fleeing their homelands seeking a new life though the completely legal process of claiming asylum.


[1] Doherty, Ben. “A Short History of Nauru, Australia’s Dumping Ground for Refugees.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 09 Aug. 2016.

[2] Doherty, Ben, and David Marr. “The Worst I’ve Seen – Trauma Expert Lifts Lid on ‘atrocity’ of Australia’s Detention Regime.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 19 June 2016.

[3] Press, Australian Associated. “$55m Cambodia Deal That Resettled Two Refugees a ‘good Outcome’, Says Dutton.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 08 Mar. 2016.

[4] Doherty, Ben. “Australia’s Indefinite Detention of Refugees Illegal, UN Rules.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 17 May 2016.

[5] “HIGH COURT OF AUSTRALIA: DOW JONES & COMPANY INC. V. GUTNICK.” International Legal Materials 42.1 (2003): 41-84. High Court of Australia. 06 Aug. 2004.

[6] “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. N.p., 16 Dec. 1966.

[7] Doherty, Ben. “Amnesty Warns Any Company Taking over Manus and Nauru Camps Complicit in ‘abuse’.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 04 Apr. 2017.

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