Canberra, Australia – Opposition to Australia’s policy of confining people on remote Pacific islands if they try to get to the country by boat is coming under increasing pressure as evidence grows of the toll it has taken on the health of those held.
Outrage in Australia at reports of vulnerable asylum seeker children suffering severe mental and physical illness as a result of being held on Nauru has forced the government into bringing the children to the country for treatment.
While Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists the migrants won’t be allowed to stay in the country and anyone else, including children, who tries to get to Australia by boat will continue to be held on remote Pacific islands, the government is under increasing pressure to reconsider its approach.
“Offshore processing is a failure,” George Newhouse, director of the legal and human rights organisation National Justice Project, told Al Jazeera. “It is giving rise to a completely avoidable health crisis and needlessly destroying lives and it must end.”
Legal and medical experts are leading the campaign against a policy that has become increasingly restrictive over the past five years.
As Australia prepares for its next election – due by June 2019 – the treatment of people in the “offshore processing centres” may carry political consequences too.
The Refugee Council of Australia’s Spokeswoman Kelly Nicholls said the asylum-seeker policy was a key concern for voters in the recent by-election in the constituency of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
The ruling Liberal Party experienced a landslide defeat in what was once one of its safest seats.
“Polling data in Wentworth showed that 65.4 percent of a sample of 870 residents want children on Nauru brought to Australia and 55 percent said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who could deliver that outcome,” Nicholls told Al Jazeera.
“The electorate wants to see that politicians have a clearly distinguished policy that gives all refugees and people seeking asylum a fair go.”
MPs within the Liberal Party ranks, including Julia Banks, whose constituency is in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, have spoken out too.
“Children are citizens of the world and the children on Nauru are our ultimate responsibility,” she declared during a speech in parliament last month. “Long-term indefinite detention is no place for any child.”
While the Law Council of Australia, Save the Children, and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) have welcomed the government’s recent measures to move children from Nauru, they all say it isn’t enough.
RACP has stressed all children must be transferred from the island now, not in months. The government has said all children will be off the island by the end of the year.
Nauru is a tiny island country covering just 21 square kilometres located northeast of Australia and close to the equator where hot and humid temperatures prevail all year. Men are sent to Manus Island, which is part of Papua New Guinea.
“We know that prolonged immigration detention increases the risk of serious mental health problems for adults and children,” Professor David Isaacs, paediatrician and RACP Fellow, said.
High levels of mental illness among those held in immigration detention facilities on the Australian mainland, Christmas Island, Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and Nauru have been known for years.
The Forgotten Children report published by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2014 documented serious levels of mental illness, trauma, depression, self-harm, sexual assault and suicide among held asylum seekers.
The following year the Australian Medical Association said holding children in immigration detention was a form of child abuse.
The National Justice Project, which has fought the government through the courts to have 50 children brought to Australia for medical treatment, is also pushing for a change in policy.
“Government officials have explained the ‘turn back [of asylum seeker boats] policy’ will achieve the government’s objectives without the need to punish vulnerable men, women and children on Nauru and Manus Island,” Newhouse said. “If a third country cannot be found to take the asylum seekers, then the only solution is to allow these people to start rebuilding their lives in Australia.”
The United States said it would take up to 1,250 refugees from the islands but only 439 have been accepted after a year of screening.
New Zealand has also offered to take some of the detainees, but Australia has declined the offer because it fears it would allow asylum seekers to enter Australia through the “back door”. New Zealanders are allowed to live and work in Australia for as long as they like.
In 2012, Australia’s then Prime Minister Julia Gillard set up an expert panel to investigate and report on the country’s policy options, yet some of its key recommendations have been ignored.
The government acted on some such as providing “no advantage” to those avoiding regular immigration avenues, but not others, including immediately increasing the humanitarian programme intake to 20,000 places a year and, ideally, 27,000 places by 2017. The projected 18,750 places on offer in 2018-2019 are well below those suggested targets.
The report also reinforced “adherence by Australia to its international obligations”.
“By forcing people to live this way, Australia is in breach of its obligations under numerous international human rights treaties in relation to torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, access to adequate healthcare and arbitrary detention, among others,” Newhouse said.