Nauru may be on the opposite side of the world, but its trauma is much closer to home

Posted by Sam Hawke on 15 August 2016

Shocking abuses have come to light over the last week on the Pacific island of Nauru, one of Australia’s offshore immigration detention sites.

Leaked files present a catalogue of violent and sexual abuse against the refugees forced to remain there, facing a crisis of physical security and mental health.

Taking place over a number of years, the abuses were committed on the eight square mile island that is staffed by officials and allegedly monitored by the Australian government.

Both living conditions and medical care for refugees are dire, and they face routine intimidation, harassment and violence. More than half the incidents involve children.

Illegal and deeply wrong

Central to how this happened is the Australian Government’s decision to push back refugee boats – either to Indonesia or to indefinite detention in Nauru and Papua New Guinea – rather than offer them sanctuary.

Of those detained, almost all are confirmed to be refugees under both Australian and international law – yet they are not permitted to come to Australia.

This is illegal and deeply wrong. Sending refugees to places where they risk being persecuted, or sent on to persecution, is banned by the Refugee Convention.

Refugees reaching a country’s shores must have their claims assessed before they can lawfully be sent away. To then indefinitely detain them for reasons of administrative convenience is a serious violation of human rights.

With these policies, refugees have been warehoused and forgotten, and appalling abuses allowed to flourish.

But, with its current response to Europe’s refugee crisis, the UK risks doing much the same.

Taking notes from Australia

The UK Government appears not to need offshore facilities, since it informally warehouses refugees in the camps of Northern France and Greece.

Under the EU’s Dublin arrangements, the UK can force refugees to remain in the country where they first arrived. This is notwithstanding those countries’ lack of capacity or the UK’s relative lack of asylum applications – we process only 4 per cent of the European total.

Even when refugee children seek to reunite with family lawfully in the UK, having got as far as Calais, the Government fights in the courts to keep them out.

As recent reports by UNICEF have found, the conditions in those camps, just 20 miles from Dover, are – much like Nauru’s – harrowing. Unaccompanied children  face “debt slavery” and “forced criminal activity”, with sexual violence – including rape and forced prostitution – “a constant threat”.

Just this weekend, much the same – sexual assault on children – has been reported in the camps in Greece.

And, just like in Australia, refugees and migrants can be locked up indefinitely here in the UK. Those detained have not committed any crime. They are imprisoned solely for the administrative convenience of the Home Office, a body whose administrative incompetence has been proven time and time again.

From these detention facilities have come a myriad of allegations of abuse and mistreatment. Case after case has found the Government to have breached Article 3 (the right not to be tortured or suffer inhuman or degrading treatment).

Women at Yarl’s Wood detention centre have reported sexual violence. In one study, more than one in five women were found to have tried to take their own lives.

The UK’s own attempt to push back the boats

Astonishingly, our Government is still seeking to follow Australia’s example – this time by stealth. Tucked away in its latest Policing and Crime Bill is a provision to introduce the same powers for UK police and customs officials to push back refugee boats at sea.

No mention was made of it in the Conservative manifesto, and there has been no debate as to the need, or even rationale, behind the measures.

The last Immigration Minister James Brokenshire even promised the Immigration Bill Committee that such proposals would not be introduced.

For the Government to use these powers on refugees would breach international law, as well as the Human Rights Act.

In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights held that Italy’s push-back policy of intercepting refugees in Italian and international water to return them to Libya breached Article 3.

The UK must not do the same.

Lessons from Nauru

Our Government must learn from Nauru: indefinite detention of refugees and migrants must end.

And it must abandon powers to push back refugees at sea. Instead, it must take what are the only effective measures to deal with the current refugee crisis and fight people-smuggling – allow for safe and legal routes for refugees.

In May, the Government committed to bring unaccompanied refugee children in Europe safely to the UK under an agreement known as the Dubs scheme.

Three months on, not one child has been resettled on our shores under this programme – and the Government has yet to explain how it will implement and fund the scheme.

Liberty has partnered with Help Refugees to hold the Government to account and make this pledge a reality.

Please email your councillors today and ask them to sign up to our statement pressuring central Government into honouring their commitment.