It’s Time to Close Australia’s Abusive Detention Regime

Sep 7, 2016


In the last few years, there have been countless official reports that have exposed abuses and recommended the closure of centres on Nauru and Manus Island. November 2014, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention uncovered numerous reported incidents of assaults, sexual assaults and self-harm involving children; March 2015, an independent review by Philip Moss uncovered allegations of sexual abuse by staff in the detention centre in Nauru; August 2015, the Senate Select Committee’s final report into conditions at Nauru recommended the immediate release into the Australian community of all children and their families detained in Nauru and in onshore detention facilities; June 2016, an independent report titled “Protection Denied, Abuse Condoned: Women at Risk on Nauru” reported that “women were being routinely abused, raped and doomed to spend the rest of their lives on a tiny island nation, often alongside the perpetrators”; July 2016, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch researchers found that the Australian Government has “designed a system of deliberate abuse”, in Nauru to deter people seeking safety who arrive by boat. All of these reports were ignored by our politicians with the arrogance of history’s most callous rulers.

The Nauru Files have been no different. The leaking of 2,000 incident reports from the Nauru Detention Centre revealed the horrifying extent of harm suffered by men, women and, overwhelmingly, children. However, when our politicians were faced with the overwhelming evidence of systemic abuse, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shifted responsibility to the Nauruan government and police force; Immigration Minister Peter Dutton called it “hype”, accusing the victims (including a man who died after setting fire to himself) of falsifying claims in order to get Australia; and former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison referred to them as allegations rather than facts and talked of invented complaints. This is an all too familiar approach of shifting responsibility, doubting claims, and blaming victims. Yet these desperate people have no other way of being heard and the number of reports is almost certainly an under-estimate of the number of real cases, because many victims will be too young or too scared to complain.

In contrast, when faced with graphic videos of abuse of indigenous children in Northern Territory detention centres weeks earlier, Turnbull immediately called for a Royal Commission. Refugee and asylum seeker children must sit too low on Turnbull’s political vote pyramid to be cared about. Even lower than the all too frequently ignored plight of indigenous children. For those imprisoned on the island of Nauru, having committed only the “crime” of asking our country for protection, there is no reprieve from the abuse. There is little hope that the government will improve conditions in Nauru because these people are not worth the time or the effort to save. Turnbull, Dutton, and Morrison are intent on doing whatever they must, “by hook or by crook” to “stop the boats” (to quote former Prime Minister Tony Abbott).

Many Australians have been left wondering what can be done to affect change. The United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture was scorned by Tony Abbott when he raised concerns that Australia’s detention system was breaching the ‘Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment’. Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott stated that Australians are, “sick of being lectured to by the United Nations”, showing a complete disregard for international law and expectations. When the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, released her National Inquiry into Children in Detention, Abbott called the report a “political stitch-up”, accused Triggs of partisanship and actively sought her resignation.

Australia’s two-party system offers little in the way of hope. Offshore detention and deterrence is a bipartisan approach. Neither party offers asylum seekers or Australian voters an alternative to abuse. Both have been guilty of running the Nauru detention centre, both have been guilty of using demonising and misleading language to justify their actions and drum up suspicion towards “undocumented” arrivals. Considering this toxic environment, is it any surprise that the 2016 Australian election saw the sorry resurgence of Pauline Hanson and the One Nation party to the Senate based on a racist campaign against muslims? Right-wing groups in Europe and America are beginning to see Australia as a shining example of how to cope with growing numbers of refugees. Xenophobia, isolationism, extreme nationalism, the closing of hearts and borders, are threats to the universal rights and freedoms established by the international community just over 60 years ago. They are threats that we all must counter.

With that in mind, I call upon our allies, our friends across the globe, our regional neighbours; I call upon President Obama, Prime Minister Trudeau, Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister Key and the New Zealand parliament, whoever it takes: tell our politicians to stop. Force them to stop. When South Africa persisted through apartheid the world imposed economic sanctions upon them. Should we not be subjected to the same international restrictions? We are in the midst of a human rights tragedy but our politicians can only see the suffering of children through the prism of ‘border protection’ and election cycles.

No other country in the world mandates the closed and indefinite detention of children seeking asylum, let alone condones their sexual assault. I cannot imagine many people in the world can read the Nauru Files and its reports of sexual assaults on children and turn the blame back onto the victims, yet this happened in Australia. It is time the international community demanded an end to the systemic abuse of children, championed and encouraged by our politicians.


Mark is a writer, a community worker, an adventurer, a campaigner for social justice, and author of The Undesirables: Inside Nauru (Hardie Grant, 2014), an account of his work with asylum seekers. Mark continues to work for an asylum seeker settlement service in Sydney and he writes as a freelancer. His second book, “Nauru Burning” will be published in August this year and he is currently working on a podcast series about the Australian government returning refugees to Afghanistan. .  This is an edited version of a short article published by New Internationalist.

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