International attention is being drawn to Australia’s asylum and refugee policy, as two brutal self-immolations have highlighted numerous human rights flaws. The first refugee to set himself on fire was a young Iranian husband and father named Omid, who later succumbed to his injuries. The latest attempt, by a 21-year-old Somali woman named Hadon, now has many looking to Australia and wondering what on Earth is going on.
It’s important to understand Australia’s policy towards refugees, migrants and asylum seekers. With wide support from elected representatives, it states that anyone who comes to Australia via boat should be taken to island facilities off the mainland — one of them located in the Republic of Nauru and the other on the island of Manus in Papua New Guinea.
Here, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants often wait in limbo for years, in dangerous conditions. Reports detail multiple instances of riots, murders, suspected sexual assault of children and adults, trauma and PTSD among detainees.
Most are not given any timelines or hopes that they will make it out of the camp. Rather, after fleeing persecution in often traumatic circumstances, they are essentially put in an island prison for an indefinite period. Many say this causes mass hopelessness and increased suicide risk.
The immigration minister, Richard Dutton, however, does not see it that way. Rather he sees the refugee advocates as being responsible for the self-immolation of these two asylum seekers. He told the press:
“I’ve previously expressed my frustration, and anger frankly, at advocates and others who are in contact with those in regional processing centers. And who are encouraging some of those people to behave in a certain way. Believing that that pressure exerted on the Australian government will see a change in our policy in relation to our border protection measures.”
He went on to say that no actions taken by advocates or refugees in regional processing centers would cause the government to change its course.
It’s a move that Sarah Mares, a child psychologist who has visited these detention centers, says will lead to increased trauma and risk.
In an article she writes for the Guardian, Mares says that inhumane and toxic environments have already proven fatal:
“Omid set himself on fire in despair at continuing indefinite detention on Nauru despite having been found to be a refugee and despite having a wife and young child. How could he have done this? We need to try and imagine how he felt. He set himself on fire in front of UNHCR representatives who were on Nauru to conduct a monitoring visit into the deteriorating mental health of those held in offshore camps. We may try to comprehend, but we cannot possibly accept that he was brought to this by our policies.”
Many human rights advocates have criticized Australia’s policy and some regional partners have tried to help out. Earlier this year New Zealand offered to take 150 refugees from their detention centers, but Australia refused.
Their reasoning? Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that, “Settlement in a country like New Zealand would be used by the people smugglers as a marketing opportunity.”
New Zealand has said their offer stills stands.
Papua New Guinea has also stepped out, declaring that the Manus Island detention center would be shut down, as the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has called for all 2,000 detainees from both island facilities to be moved to the mainland. Arepresentative with UNHCR in Australia says the recent incidents showed a need for a mental health intervention: “These are highly predictable outcomes of prolonged detention, and they’re really symptomatic of the fact that people have now lost all hope.”
However, despite both regional and international pressure, Australia’s reticence to let refugees onto the mainland doesn’t show any sign of changing anytime soon.