Once again, Australia’s asylum policy has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
A 21 year old Somalian asylum seeker, Hodan Yasin, attempted to set fire to herself at the Australian refugee processing centre on the Pacific island of Nauru less than a week after she was forcibly sent back to detention there.
Hodan’s attempted self-immolation is the latest in a long string of suicide attempts by refugees in Australian detention centres, which have swelled in capacity after the announcement of Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013, when the military were put in control of intercepting the many boats of refugees from Indonesia and the Asian subcontinent that attempt to reach the shore. Activists have accused the country of being racially motivated in its strong opposition to some asylum claims, while the government reiterates its duty to protect the integrity of its borders, claiming that such tough policies have helped minimise the risk of accident and death at sea.
Australia is one of few countries that processes the applications of all asylum claimants off-shore before making a decision on whether to grant them permission to enter the country. In many cases, even if asylum seekers are found to be legitimate refugees, they will not be settled on the Australian mainland but instead will be settled in Nauru or Papua New Guinea. Recently four asylum claimants were settled in Cambodia at a cost of around £28 million to the Australian government.
Rights groups claim that the processing centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea are ‘completely inadequate’, highlighting a lack of hygeine and basic facilities. A BBC News team that travelled undercover to the Manus Island centre in Papua New Guinea in 2015 were told by refugees how the Australian government ‘broke the majority’ of their human rights and that some had been detained in the camp for over two years. Australia has, however, made the centres economically attractive to the poorer countries that are paid to house them – in the case of Papua New Guinea the country has been paid around £200 million in aid to house a detention centre and accept the resettlement of refugees.
Perhaps one of the most worrying elements of this situation is the way in which those who raise concerns about the conditions and treatment of refugees have been silenced by the Australian government. A law passed in 2015 made it illegal for government employees working at these detention centres to share any information with the media about the happenings or conditions inside the fences, despite claims of severe physical and mental health problems among those detained at such centres. Although some protections are still afforded under the country’s law guaranteeing the rights of whistle-blowers, very few have publicly revealed damaging information.
Despite strong criticism, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott can be seen to have achieved his promise of tightening Australia’s borders, as the number of boats carrying asylum seekers to Australian shores has fallen to virtually zero since the military began to forcibly turn back such vessels. With Mr Abbott describing his methods as ‘by hook or by crook’, and a continuing effort to stifle criticism, it seems that Australia will remain resistant to pressure for change.