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Offshore Detentions: Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

By J.D.

As of the 28th of August 2019, 288 refugees are being held in detention in Nauru, 306 in Papua New Guinea/Manus Island and a further 53 detained in Papua New Guinea, a total of 647 people in offshore processing centres according to the Refugee Council of Australia.

Image by Kalhh

It is sometimes hard to separate numbers from real people when discussing these issues. They seem to grow so large that we can barely imagine that many people stuck, waiting, off the shores of Australia. But we must remember what these numbers mean. 647 people being held in offshore processing centres means 647 humans, people with lives and stories and families, waiting to be released so that they can - at the very least - regain some sense of stability after leaving their homes behind.

These people are not ‘illegal’ and deserve no punishment – under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. In addition, under the 1951 Refugee Convention, states are prohibited from penalising those coming directly from territories where their life or freedom is threatened.

Nonetheless, right now, around 647 people are being held in the offshore processing centres in Nauru, 3000km from the Australian mainland, and Manus Island, 300km north of Papua New Guinea’s main island. The mental health of refugees living on both Manus and Nauru has been described as a state of crisis.

A study from the University of Melbourne has found that rates of self-harm among refugees and asylum seekers in detention are more than 200 times the rates of hospital-treated self-harm patients within the Australian community. On Nauru, data released by the Australian Government showed that the rates of self-harm on Nauru were 260 incidents per 1000 people, while those in community detention had rates of 27 incidents per 1000 people and those in community-based arrangements had rates of 5 incidents per 1000 people.

Luckily, all children from Nauru have been brought to Australia, but it seems that past trauma as well as the hostility of living at Nauru has taken its toll on the mental health of a lot of these children. On top of this, the Australian government restricts many refugees’ access to vocational training under the conditions of their community detention, meaning that they are unable to kickstart a new life with education or a job in Australia. One refugee who spent 5 years in Nauru states:

“I’ve experienced massive traumatic events, as a girl, as a child.

But, the educational exclusion generates endless regret in me.

I feel empty and numb. I am a dreamless girl now.”

(Read more about this refugee and others like her here)

Since the federal elections in May this year (in which the Coalition Government was elected to govern Australia for the next three years), at least 26 refugees living on Manus Island have attempted suicide or self-harmed. Even worse, the local hospital on Manus Island is unable to cope with the recent spike in the number of people who have harmed themselves. Many of these people had been hoping for a Labour win, thinking it would give them more options for resettlement, but instead the recent elections have inspired fear, with many believing they will be held in detention for another three years.

They have good reason to fear – the Coalition Government has claimed it will cap Australia’s refugee intake and has no plans to accept an offer from New Zealand to resettle 150 refugees from Manus Island and Nauru. This government also plans to repeal the Medevac laws passed in February this year, which were praised by the UN as a ‘life saving, humanitarian act’. These laws allow critically sick refugees and asylum seekers being held in offshore detention centres to be transferred to Australia for urgent medical treatment. Before the passing of this bill, sick refugees and asylum seekers waited an average of two years before receiving treatment, although this wait time reached 5 years for some. The Department of Home Affairs claims that this bill has caused those being held in offshore detention to self-harm at a higher rate, as this can be seen as an effective way of being transferred to Australia. However, these claims have been refuted by doctors who work with refugees in these centres.

The mental health crises in both Manus Island and Nauru show that the mental health of those staying in offshore detention centres has been and will continue to deteriorate if nothing is done to improve their conditions and access to health care (at the very least). The statistics and stories coming out of offshore detention centres like Manus and Nauru are absolutely appalling and violates numerous human rights, including the right to education, the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, and more.

All people seeking asylum in Australia deserve dignity, a new beginning, and their human rights to be upheld. The people being kept in the detention centres at Manus and Nauru are not receiving any of these things.

Australia is directly responsible for the suffering, trauma and abuse the people trapped in detention have been through these past years. Our media and politicians might call them illegals, boat people or other derogatory names but we must remember they are human beings too. We can call our government out for abuse, detainment and human rights violations but what this is and what we need to make clear is that the Australian government is destroying them.

* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Woke magazine.


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