The following discusses and links to claims and depictions of physical assault, verbal abuse, coercion, racism, homophobia, religious discrimination, unlawful incarceration, rape, murder, paedophilia, self-harm, self-immolation, and suicide in relation to treatment of refugees. Readers may find the descriptions distressing.
Law firm Maurice Blackburn has published shocking witness statements by refugees detained by Australia on Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) and the tiny island nation of Nauru. Maurice Blackburn also published a short film that, with help from AI technology, depicts some of the horrifying violence experienced by the refugees. The testimonies and images are on display at the Immigration Museum, Melbourne.
The law firm explained that its clients:
were degraded, dehumanised and had their lives devalued over many years in the camps on Nauru and Manus Island. Their statements describe the horror of life in detention including physical and sexual violence, racism, discrimination and self-harm.
Only by making injustice visible can we provoke change.
This is certainly debatable. After all, Aylan Kurdi, the three year old whose body was depicted lying face down on a beach is likely to have been forgotten now. As Dr. Nadine El-Enany argued:
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The photograph of the Syrian toddler that so galvanised Europe’s public over the question of refugees seems a distant memory now. Is it that a genuine concern for the wellbeing of refugees has merely been displaced by other political priorities in the minds of Europeans? Or is it that the basis for the mass outpouring of grief and the acts of generosity and solidarity that followed the publication of the photo was always fickle, contingent upon white Europeans’ limited capacity to humanise the other?
Laying bare the onslaughts of violence that Black and Brown refugees suffer at the hands of murderous states shouldn’t be the standard. If we know that refugees are being tortured via statements and interviews, why must we also see that visually? We would suggest extreme caution at following the links above to view the project.
Regimes of cruelty
The following are extracted from the witness statements.
One young man from Iran, when a teenager, was detained with his family on Nauru. He witnessed security guards hit and threaten children. While on Nauru one of his friends died by suicide. He was involved in many protests about the camp’s conditions:
In these protests, I could see many people who had sewn their mouths shut. I saw this on at least 10 occasions myself. I personally tried to sew my mouth myself once. I also witnessed multiple occasions of people self-harming or committing suicide. On one occasion I saw someone… set themselves on fire… After my friend passed away I almost committed suicide myself twice while on Nauru.
An Iranian woman, detained on Nauru, explained why she attempted to kill herself:
She was taken to hospital, where she was assaulted by a male nurse.
A man from Burma, detained on Manus Island, described how he was assaulted by Australian and local guards:
They were punching me in the eye and mouth, and they also kicked me. They were wearing heavy boots and each kick felt very painful. I lost six teeth and had retina problems as a result of this attack. Since the attack, I have suffered from blurry vision in both eyes, but particularly in my right eye.
The testimonies include many other examples of cruelty, such as:
- One young bisexual man from Lebanon, detained on Nauru, described how he was assaulted by a security guard. He stated that personnel with the Australian Border Force simply watched but did not intervene.
- A woman from Kuwait, detained on Nauru, told how she was sexually assaulted on three occasions by a male nurse. She added that she had “lots of ladies’ infections, but they did nothing about it”. When she was permitted to go to the US she had to have two surgeries because of what happened.
- A young man from Iran, detained on Manus, shared how he found a refugee friend who had killed himself.
Refugees awarded compensation
The Refugee Council of Australia provides comprehensive data, via Australian government sources, on refugees detained offshore. Since August 2012, Australia has detained a total of 4,183 refugees on Nauru or Papua New Guinea. Of these, a total of 3,127 were detained since 19 July 2013.
Following legal challenges, in 2016 the Papua New Guinea supreme court ruled that Australia’s detention of refugees there was illegal. The following year, Victoria’s supreme court awarded AUD $70m to 1,923 eligible refugees held on Papua New Guinea. The distribution of the money was based on a refugee’s length of detention and injuries sustained. Though, of course, these are paltry sums compared to the suffering they experienced.
In addition, the Australian government was ordered to pay more than AUD $20m in court costs. Greg Barns, a senior counsel and an advisor to the Manus Island litigation case, has told the Canary that this figure was just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, Human Rights Watch reported that between 2014 and 2020, offshore processing cost the Australian taxpayer an estimated AUD $8.3bn.
Most of the refugees detained offshore eventually resettled in Australia or a third country. 749 refugees returned to their country of origin. As of 28 February 2023, a total of 105 refugees still remain in Papua New Guinea, mostly in Port Moresby, while 61 refugees remain in the Nauruan community. The Pacific island state and Australia remain committed to an “enduring form of offshore processing”.
The Rwanda connection
The UK’s Illegal Migration Bill includes a plan to transport refugees to Rwanda or other destinations. This offshoring plan emerged after then-home secretary Priti Patel met with former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer and former Australian PM Tony Abbott.
In an article for the Canary, Greg Barns commented:
What lies behind both the UK and Australian approach to offshore asylum processing is toxic neo-colonialism. This involves, in each case, a wealthy country seducing poorer nations with the promise of aid and money if they play ball.
While Human Rights Watch observed that Australia’s detention regime on Nauru and Manus Island:
caused more than eight years of immense human suffering. Twelve people have died since the policy began in 2013. Men, women, and children have suffered inhumane treatment and medical neglect, and years of indefinite detention led to suicides and an epidemic of self-harm.
Human Rights Watch further noted that Rwanda has:
a known track record of extrajudicial killings, suspicious deaths in custody, unlawful or arbitrary detention, torture, and abusive prosecutions, particularly targeting critics and dissidents.
However, the Tory government clearly doesn’t give a damn about that record. As with Australia, the UK’s refugees policy is all about cruelty and instilling suffering. Whilst offshoring involves neocolonial regimes hiding refugees outside of their shores, the end result is the same abuse refugees face inside any given state’s borders. Refugees are thoroughly dehumanised, abused, and tortured. The fact that it happens offshore should be a further shame to governments. Australia’s horrific treatment of refugees demonstrates that these white settlers are choosing to brutalise refugees in order to be seen to keep white populations safe. The offshoring plans from the British government are entirely in step with this ethos.
Firms like Maurice Blackman shouldn’t have to lay out the suffering of refugees in order to enact resistance. We would all do well to better consider how we demand grief and pain from Black and Brown people to be performed in order to gain sympathy. Are we going to wait until the British government does the same in Rwanda? Or are we going to speak up now?
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