Sydney (AFP) – Australia is pursuing a deliberate policy of abuse in its treatment of asylum-seekers on the Pacific island of Nauru to deter others from arriving by boat, two global human rights groups said Wednesday.
The report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch is a scathing criticism of Canberra’s immigration policy under which asylum-seekers trying to reach Australia by boat are sent back or taken to Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
The government insists they settle in the Pacific islands or return home and denies them resettlement in Australia even if they are found to be refugees.
In the latest criticism of the policy, Amnesty and HRW said asylum-seekers and refugees on Nauru suffered “severe abuse, inhumane treatment, and neglect”.
The government’s “failure to address serious abuses appears to be a deliberate policy to deter further asylum-seekers from arriving in the country by boat”, it added.
Doctors, lawyers and refugee advocates have previously criticised the offshore settlement, with allegations that some asylum-seekers suffered sexual abuse and mental health problems while in the camp.
“Driving adult and even child refugees to the breaking point with sustained abuse appears to be one of Australia’s aims on Nauru,” said HRW’s Michael Bochenek, one of the two researchers who went to Nauru last month to interview 84 asylum-seekers and refugees.
Those interviewed, who came from nations including Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan, told the rights groups they had developed severe anxiety, inability to sleep, mood swings, prolonged depression and short-term memory loss, while describing conditions as “prison-like”.
“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 woman said.
Asylum-seekers on Nauru have been free to roam around the tiny nation since last year, no longer forced to stay in the detention centre.
But the researchers said conditions outside the centre were “abhorrent”, with reports that asylum-seekers were beaten, robbed and harassed by some members of the local community.
Despite criticism of its immigration policy, Australia’s conservative government has strongly defended it, saying it has halted the spate of boat arrivals, and drownings, of earlier years.
But refugee advocates and journalists say a veil of secrecy has been imposed around the processing centres in PNG and Nauru, with only a handful of them gaining access to the camp in recent years.
Some 442 asylum-seekers are being held in Nauru, and another 854 on Manus, according to immigration department data ending June 30.