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Australia mistreats refugees as deterrent: Amnesty, HRW

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Refugee children take part in a protest in March 2015 against their resettlement on the South Pacific island of Nauru and living conditions there. (photo by HRW)

Australia is following the intentional inhumane policy of mistreating asylum seekers held on the South Pacific island of Nauru in a bid to deter others from attempting to sail to Australia, two prominent human rights groups say.

According to a lengthy joint report by the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) released on Tuesday, Canberra’s “failure to address serious abuses appears to be a deliberate policy to deter further asylum-seekers from arriving in the country by boat.”

Around 1,200 men, women, children, who sought refuge in Australia but forcibly transferred to the remote island nation of Nauru suffered “severe abuse, inhumane treatment, and neglect,” it added.

The Republic of Nauru, which has almost entirely banned journalists to travel to the island, finally allowed Anna Neistat, a researcher from Amnesty and Michael Bochenek a researcher from HRW to visit the island for 12 days back in July, despite its reputation for secrecy.

The researchers then interviewed 84 refugees, from countries including Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, who have been trapped in the island’s Australian-funded facility against their wills. The shocking joint report is mainly based on these interviews, and the ones with service providers working in the center.

The refugees and asylum seekers “endure unnecessary delays and at times denial of medical care, even for life-threatening conditions. Many have dire mental health problems and suffer overwhelming despair—self-harm and suicide attempts are frequent. All face prolonged uncertainty about their future,” it further said, adding that they also faced frequent unpunished assaults, including physical and sexual ones, by local Nauruans.

Bochenek, a senior counsel on children’s rights at HRW, said Canberra’s “atrocious treatment” of asylum seekers on the island over the past three years has taken a huge toll on their well-being, adding that, "Driving adult and even child refugees to the breaking point with sustained abuse appears to be one of Australia’s aims on Nauru.”

Neistat, a senior director for research at Amnesty, also said that the Australian government had gone to astonishing lengths to “deliberately inflict suffering” on these ill-fated people, who had sought safety and freedom, adding that, “Australia's policy of exiling asylum seekers who arrive by boat is cruel in the extreme.”

Participants hold a candle light vigil for two refugees, a Somali woman and an Iranian man who set themselves on fire on the remote Pacific island of Nauru, in Sydney, Australia, on May 4, 2016. (AFP)

Australia denies settlement to refugees attempting to reach the country by boat. The refugee boats are intercepted and sent to the remote islands of Christmas and Manus in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where they are kept in reportedly inhumane conditions, and held indefinitely while their refugee applications are processed.

A medical report by the Australian Human Rights Commission has already said 95 percent of children held in detention centers showed risks of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Canberra, however, insists that these people have two choices: either settle in the Pacific islands or return to their home countries, even if they are found to be refugees, arguing that such policy of exiling refugees to remote islands has saved lives by removing the motivation for asylum seekers to attempt the perilous and often deadly ocean crossing from Indonesia to Australia in rickety boats.

The critics, however, accuse the government of trading one evil for another.

“People here don’t have a real life. We are just surviving. We are dead souls in living bodies. We are just husks. We don’t have any hope or motivation,” one of the interviewed women said.

Pro-refugee activists keep vigil outside the Mater Hospital in Brisbane, Australia, on February 21, 2016. (AFP)

This is while the Australian government called the report mere claims and allegations made by the rights groups, adding that Amnesty had not consulted Australia's Department of Immigration and Border Protection while preparing the report.

“The department therefore has had no opportunity to inform itself of these claims and would strongly encourage Amnesty International to contact the department before airing allegations of this kind,” said a spokeswoman for the Department to Reuters on Tuesday.

According to Amnesty, Broadspectrum, an Australian publicly listed corporation, which runs the facility, and International Health and Medical Services, the main medical service provider for the refugees in Nauru, denied the allegations when asked for comment.

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