Abuse leaks force Australia to close refugee detention centre, but also put whistleblower at risk

Tom Coburg

On 15 August, The Canary Global reported on how Australian politicians might face legal action over the horrific abuse taking place in its offshore refugee detention centres. Since then, there have been two major revelations. First of all, Australia will now close one of its much-criticised detention centres. Secondly, the identity of a key whistleblower has been revealed.

Australia to close its Manus Island detention centre

On 17 August, Papua New Guinea (PNG) finally forced Australia to agree to the closure of its refugee detention centre on Manus Island. The latter agreed to this decision in order to avoid a PNG Supreme Court hearing, scheduled for August 22, which could have proved very embarrassing.

Amnesty International has made it clear in a statement that this closure is only a first step, and that all 850 refugees detained must now be brought to Australia. Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton, however, has been deliberately vague about the timetable for closing the centre on Manus Island. This adds to an ominous comment from April, when he said the Manus Island refugees would never be moved to the Australian mainland. Judging by this attitude, his plan may now be simply to relocate the refugees to a re-furbished camp on the already over-crowded detention centre on Christmas Island.

This centre is managed by Serco Australia, which also manages several mainland prisons and detention centres. Serco has been embroiled in a number of scandals – notably the conditions that led to the death of a young Afghan asylum-seeker.

Significantly, Christmas Island is an Australian territory, which means the detention centre there isn’t subject to cooperation with other countries. It also means, however, that it may be easier for lawyers to take to Australia’s courts on behalf of those detained there.

The man behind the ‘Nauru Files’ leaks

On 16 August, the whistleblower who leaked the ‘Nauru Files‘ – documenting the abuse of refugees – held a press conference (called ‘Whistleblowers Defy The Government’) in Canberra. Most of the major Australian TV stations were present, and even Sky News was there.

Upon revealing his identity, though, the man behind the leaks was exposing himself to the possibility of prosecution, and even imprisonment for up to two years.

Canberra press conference

But there was more at stake than that person’s liberty. Much more: the lives and the physical and mental health of hundreds of men, women and children, locked up indefinitely in the offshore detention centre on the Pacific island of Nauru and, until more information is released, on Manus Island.

The whistleblower who revealed over 2,000 files documenting the abuse of refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru via the Nauru Files was revealed as leading Australian psychologist, Paul Stevenson.

Stevenson first exposed some of the abuses that took place in June. In the following months, more details were provided to Guardian Australia and these were published in the form of an interactive database. Not long after that, the Australian government vowed it would use all means possible to identify and prosecute the leaker.

At the press conference, Stevenson explained how, for him, it was a moral duty to reveal the terrible suffering and trauma he had seen at Nauru and Manus. He said further evidence of abuse would be revealed in due course.

Stevenson’s fate

Earlier this year, the Australian government introduced a new law that made it illegal for doctors treating asylum seekers and refugees to report abuse of any kind. If they – or any other person, including teachers or aid workers – reported that abuse to anyone, particularly the media, they could be prosecuted and face up to 2 years imprisonment.

But the Australian Medical Association (AMA) stated it would oppose any law that threatens clinicians (and all other professionals) for reporting on health failures in the detention centres. In fact, many leading Australian clinicians have previously voiced their opposition to the centres.

As a clinician, Stevenson will presumably receive the full backing of the AMA. Similarly, if he is prosecuted, he can count on the backing of several leading human rights lawyers, including Julian Burnside, Rob Stary and Greg Barns.

No hiding place

Putting to one side the possible financial compensation due to refugees and asylum seekers as a result of legal action, the Australian government is now left with two stark choices.

It can either close its detention centres once and for all, and allow refugees onto the Australian mainland (or into New Zealand, which has offered to help). Or it can simply carry on ‘business as usual’, leaving its ministers and contractors open to prosecution.

With the latter, there are two options available:

  1. Any Australian minister deemed responsible for the abuses that have taken place could risk arrest if they travel to another country, under the principle of universal jurisdiction (as flagged on 15 August by The Canary). This would also apply to the directors of companies like Wilson Security, Broadspectrum, Ferrovial and Serco which have been contracted to manage the detention centres.
  2. An NGO like Amnesty International or a professional body like the AMA could instigate legal proceedings, with the assistance of human rights lawyers, in the Australian courts against named government officials and company directors for crimes against humanity.

An increasingly isolated government

For at least the last two years, mass demonstrations in support of detained refugees have been commonplace in every major Australian city. And demands to close the centres have come from all quarters.

1,810 academics signed an open letter to Prime Minister Turnbull and other MPs earlier this year demanding an end to the government’s policies of offshore processing, boat turn-backs, and the mandatory detention of people seeking asylum.

And unlike the Australian government, Stevenson has much support. In particular, he can count on the support of major human rights agencies such as Amnesty International, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Committee Against Torture, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The longer the Australian government stalls in its decision on what to do next with the offshore detention facilities, the more likely further damning evidence will be revealed.

Time is running out for the Australian government.

Get Involved!

– Investigate (and take) strike action against the contractors who manage the offshore refugee centres.

– Read the following reports condemning the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island: Amnesty International, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Committee against Torture, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

– Read The Canary‘s previous articles on Australia and refugees, and see more international reporting from us at The Canary Global.

– Support The Canary as we seek to amplify the voices of oppressed people around the world.

Feature image via Flickr Creative Commons

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