United States to Resettle Refugees Languishing Indefinitely in Australian Off-Shore Detention Centers

On Sunday, November 13th Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a resettlement agreement with the United States for some of the refugees in Australia’s off-shore detention centers on the island of Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Those held at the facilities have already been determined to qualify as refugees by the governments of Nauru and PNG and will now be interviewed and screened by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officers, as well as undergo security vetting by U.S. and international intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

Since 2012 Australia has sent asylum seekers intercepted at sea to these offshore detention centers to block refugees from reaching the Australian mainland. Not only morally questionable, the move violates Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention and other international treaties. As of June 2016, there were 442 people detained on Nauru, including men, women, and children—on Manus Island there were 854. At present the governments of Nauru and PNG hold 1,616 refugees in indefinite detention. Many of them, including children, have been detained for over three years. Financially, detention in these centers costs Australian taxpayers $1.2 billion a year, but the true cost comes at the expense of the nation’s moral core, for every day the centers remain open unfathomable trauma is inflicted on vulnerable refugees subjected to its prolonged and indefinite detention.

For years the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island have been living in awful conditions. In August 2016 the Guardian released more than two thousand leaked incident reports documenting assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm attempts, child abuse, and horrific living conditions at the facilities.

Australia’s refugee policies and practices have been criticized and condemned again and again, including by Australia’s Human Rights Commission (AHRC), the United Nations (UN), and other countries. The UN Human Rights Committee found in at least 51 cases, a record number of cases more than any other country, that the Australian government’s indefinite offshore detention of asylum seekers and refugees violates Australia’s legal obligations under human rights law. The Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) conducted regular visits to the detention centers and found that the allegations of sexual assault, abuse, self-harm, child abuse are consistent with their findings. The OHCHR repeatedly called on the Australian government to abandon their disastrous policy, stating that “there is an urgent response required.” In 2015 Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez, found that various aspects of Australia’s asylum seeker detention policies violate the Convention Against Torture and that the the country violated “the right of asylum seekers, including children, to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Instead of wasting billions to subject men, women, and children to unnecessary and arbitrary detention, Australia should reverse these rights-violating policies and live up to its human rights and refugee protection commitments. It would help it live up to its role as a leader in the Asia-Pacific region and as a signatory to the Refugee Convention, and many other key international human rights treaties.

Considerable uncertainty remains about the number of refugees that will be eligible for resettlement in the United States and how quickly their resettlement will occur. Prime Minister Turnbull and Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton stated that families, women, and children would be prioritized for resettlement through the deal. Confirming the agreement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “We are going to work to protect vulnerable refugees around the world, and we’ll share that responsibility with our friends in the regions that are most affected by this challenge.”

The United States should couple this resettlement deal with strong statements expressing concern over Australia’s rights violating policies, which set a poor example for front-line refugee hosting states around the world.  Instead of shirking their own refugee protection commitments, Australia and other nations—including the United States—should demonstrate true leadership in the global refugee crisis by honoring legal obligations and commitments. By doing so, they would show that sharing responsibility sets a better example than resorting to deals that barter and trade with the lives of refugees.



  • Eleanor Acer

Published on November 16, 2016


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