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10 Horrors Of Australia’s Refugee Detention Centers

by Gregory Myers
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Australia has been trying to find the best way to deal with immigration and refugees for a few decades now. Many people seeking asylum arrive in Australia by boat—often aided by people smugglers—in an attempt to find a way out of the horrible situations in their home countries. Now, to avoid an influx of asylum seekers showing up on the Australian mainland, people on boats are brought to one of the detention centers that are located on islands surrounding Australia and forcibly detained.

While some people think the policy of detainment itself is wrong, the Australian government defends its actions by saying they are processing the asylum seekers’ claims and trying to find out whose claims are legitimate before they let them into the country. Since Australia is one big island, it can’t simply deport people back over the border to wherever they came from. The problem is whether or not the policy of detainment is the right thing to do. The conditions at the facilities are often terrible, and many of the asylum seekers are forced to endure a living hell. Some of them, sadly, choose to take their own lives instead of dealing with the living conditions any longer.

Note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that asylum seekers are not considered illegal immigrants in Australia. All uses of the word “immigrant” have been revised to “refugee” or similar.

10The Deal With Cambodia

10 Deal
Most of the people fleeing to Australia by boat are not coming in order to simply seek a better life. They are actually seeking asylum due to human rights abuses in their home countries. Despite this, the current Australian government wants as little as possible to do with relocating asylum seekers on Australian territory and has made a deal with the Cambodian government to take many of their refugees. This deal has been criticized for many reasons. To begin with, many people feel that the Australian government is simply trying to send the problem somewhere else in lieu of actually dealing with it, and others feel the deal is not being carried out in a transparent manner.

However, many people’s concerns are much worse than that. The first problem is that Cambodia is a poor country with very little economic opportunity—hardly a place prepared to take on new citizens. It might seem strange then that Cambodia is agreeing to take them at all, but they are being offered a financial incentive. The most problematic aspect of the deal is that Cambodia is known for sending people recognized as needing asylum by the international community right back to the brutal countries that they escaped from. This means the Australian government is taking many people seeking an escape and dumping them in the hands of a country that may just send them straight back to the people they were running from.

9Accusations Of Coaching Self-Harm

9 Self harm
Many advocacy organizations like Amnesty International and Save The Children have spent time in the detention centers trying to do what they can to be watchdogs and fight for those without a voice—especially the children. Unfortunately, several Save The Children staffers were recently suspended as a precautionary measure after the immigration minister accused them and other advocates of coaching detainees on how to perform self-harm protests in order to make a political point and change their situation. There is, as of yet, no evidence to prove that anyone is coaching the detainees to hurt themselves, but the charges have to be taken seriously.

However, it is telling that the psychiatrist who once supervised all of the mental health care for the detention centers felt that the accusations were groundless. In his view, the immigration minister wasn’t making good sense. In fact, he felt that the accusations showed a fundamental lack of understanding as to why people actually take part in self-harming behavior. Even if someone were to do it because they were coached, someone isn’t going to physically hurt themselves so severely just because they were told to do so by a charity worker. The point the immigration minister really misses is that, coached or not, self-harm—especially among children—is a red flag for extreme psychological distress.

8People Are Sometimes Detained For Years

8 Detained years
The point of the detention centers is not to lock people up indefinitely or simply turn people away. Australia does have a legal immigration process as well, and those who end up in the detention centers were coming to Australia without using that process before getting there. However, these people are usually seeking asylum from countries where they fear their government will do them harm, and it’s important to note that asylum seekers are not considered illegal immigrants under Australian law. They are not simply seeking a better life off the taxpayers’ dime in another country; they are trying to stay alive. The detention centers are supposed to be a halfway point where people can be processed, and the legitimate asylum seekers can eventually be waved through to Australia after their request is approved. The problem is that the entire process is not very well organized, and the detention centers are overcrowded. This means many people are waiting absurdly long times for their asylum claims to go through.

People are locked up in conditions that are sometimes worse than prisons for well over a year and sometimes for many years. One girl’s advocates are suing the Australian government on her behalf since she has already been locked up for over a year and she is only six years old. Some advocates have stated that just three to six months in similar conditions can cause serious mental health issues in fully grown adults and the damage to children can only be worse. Another mental health care worker who spent time at the facilities quit after seeing what he felt could only be described as torture meant to convince people they did not actually want to come to Australia to live.

7Many Children Are Locked Up

7 kids
As we touched on earlier, there are many children that are locked up for a long time in the detention centers, but the actual numbers are staggering. According to Australia’s Immigration Department, there are well over 1,000 children being held in detention for the sole crime of coming to Australia by boat with their families—a choice a child does not have the capability to make. The same report says that the average time an asylum seeker spends in detention is eight months. Some people believe that the arbitrary detention of children is a breach of international law. The law basically states that, unless there is no alternative, children should not be locked up and then only for the shortest amount of time possible. The problem is getting people to agree on the definitions for those terms.

Many of Australia’s doctors are troubled by the way the asylum seekers are being treated, but they are especially concerned about the treatment of the children. Most of them feel that the detention is abusive. However, others that have been on the ground in the refugee centers are unable to officially speak out against abusive practices at the detention centers because they have to sign a gag order before they can work at the facilities. Several influential medical groups in Australia have already spoken out saying that a committee needs to be formed to truly get a handle on what kinds of abuse are going on in the facilities in the hopes of finally putting an end to the inhumane practices.

6Alleged Sexual Abuse

6 sexual abuse
The detention centers are packed with guards and both adult and child refugee seekers. With the poor conditions, guards are basically in full control. With many of these centers somewhat isolated, allegations of abuse are saddening but perhaps not surprising. The allegations claim dozens of cases of child sexual abuse on Christmas Island and all sorts of horrors on some of the other islands. The allegations stem mostly from abuse performed by the guards against the refugees. The guards exploit their positions of authority to use others for perverse sexual purposes.

According to some of the claims, the guards have made women strip in front of them if they wanted long showers and have been seen holding small refugee children on their laps late at night. However, the sexual assault worries are not relegated only to the guards. Some staff members—especially females—have reported cases where others attempted sexual assault against them. The authorities in charge have agreed to investigate, but they claimed that the complaints were only of a general nature and were partly an attempt by their political opponents to make them look bad and change immigration policy.

5The Pacific Solution

Refugees Continue To Land On Lampedusa Island
Back in 2001, when John Howard was Prime Minister, the Australian government introduced something called the Pacific Solution. The Pacific Solution was a set of policies meant to deter refugees coming to the country in boats. The policy was incredibly harsh. It simply removed many of the islands surrounding Australia for the purposes of immigration then started aggressively patrolling and sending back any boats that they found. If a boat did make its way too far through, they were taken to the islands of Papua New Guinea or Nauru so the government could decide whether to accept their request for asylum. Those who wish for a return to this policy claim it’s an obvious success. A year after the policy was instated, they went from thousands of boats crossing into Australian waters to just one.

People who were truly seeking asylum, and made it into the island detention centers, were sometimes granted Temporary Protection Visas. The problem was that these only lasted for three years. After they expired, the asylum seekers would have to apply for one again. The policies were designed to discourage as many people as possible from trying to make a new life in the Land Down Under. Some people have claimed that the policy’s success was partly due to a worldwide decrease in refugees that happened at the same time. While this is true, Australia still did have a significant drop in refugee traffic that those statistics cannot entirely account for, and people smugglers have claimed the return of the policy would certainly make their jobs more difficult.

4Poor Living Conditions

4 living conditions
The detention centers are known for being abusive to refugees at the worst of times and not taking care of them properly at the best of times. The problem is not necessarily callousness but a lack of proper planning. The truth is that the facilities are managed incredibly poorly. A report by a government watchdog group found five major flaws in the way the detention centers are run that lead to poor and often abusive living conditions for the asylum seekers.

The report says that the staff are not properly trained, and in some cases they were not given any training beyond the usual employee orientation. The entire report is damning, as it claims that the facilities often stick people together who are known to have ethnic conflict and have little sensitivity for people’s religious beliefs.

To make matters worse, plans are basically non-existent for dealing with the riots that occur on a semi-regular basis, detainees’ self-harming behaviors, and other circumstances. Furthermore, despite often being hit with a wave of 100 or more refugees at a time, there are no plans in place to prepare for an influx of new people. If that wasn’t bad enough, the agency that filed the report believes that many of the instances of abuse are actually underreported by those in charge of the facilities.

3Poorly Equipped Guards

3 guards
While many advocates concentrate on the terrible living conditions for those under imprisonment at the detention centers, the truth is the guards sent to watch them aren’t really given the proper equipment or training to handle the situations either. In other words, the whole system could probably use an overhaul. One guard explained after a recent riot that the security company G4S—which was replaced by a different company after the riots—knew the riot was coming and that it was inevitable because of their poor management of the detainees and the center in general.

To make matters worse, the guard believes that less damage would have been done to all if the guards had been properly prepared and had all the proper equipment together. He explained that the training of most fellow guards wasn’t up to snuff. They didn’t have enough protection to go around once the riots started, they had trouble communicating because of a lack of radios, and they couldn’t find enough lights when there was a blackout. He also complained of shoddy work that led to contamination of crime scenes.

Part of the reason violence is inevitable comes from locals being hired as security—locals who, according to the guard, often abuse the refugees as a matter of habit. This leads those inside to either riot or perform self-harm protests. The guard wasn’t just selfishly complaining about having to protect himself with improvised objects in the event of a riot. He still felt that the abuse the refugees dealt with was terrible and that something should be done about it.

2Detention Center Riots

2 riot
As we mentioned earlier, the detention centers sometimes play host to riots. Unfortunately, these riots happen alarmingly often and are usually very damaging. At the Christmas Island detention center in 2011, more than 200 people rioted. Many of them were trying to escape the detention centers. Multiple buildings were burned to the ground and some of the refugees were injured. In a riot at the Manus detention center in 2014, one Iranian man was killed and around 70 people were injured. Reporters who took a tour of the place saw shattered glass that was yet to be cleaned up, bullet holes, and asylum seekers crowding them, beseeching their help in their cause to gain freedom.

However, sometimes it’s not just the asylum seekers who end up injured in the riots. An extremely deadly riot occurred at the Nauru facility in 2013. Some initial reports claimed as many as 500 people escaped the detention center before being later rounded up. Most of the buildings were burned, and the riot police were attacked by the protesters with whatever hard or jagged objects they could find lying around. The aftermath of the riot left much of the facility in shambles. Damages were estimated in the tens of millions and now there was the problem of where to put the detainees since the center was so damaged. These are just some of the riots that have occurred at the detention centers and, sadly, they are expected to keep happening.

1The Australian Government Put A Bounty On People Smugglers

1 bounty
The Australian government believes that one of the biggest contributors to the crisis is the human trafficking industry. Smugglers charge asylum seekers thousands of dollars and make big promises to them about life in Australia. These smugglers are sometimes known for telling people to abandon their IDs to avoid identification, but some feel these smugglers are hurting the asylum seekers this way since it makes processing even longer and harder for people who legitimately need asylum. With their IDs gone, it takes longer to verify who they are and whether their story checks out.

These smugglers take people over to Australia on dangerous boat journeys but make a killing doing so. The business behind it is vast, and the Australian government believes it has its tendrils in multiple countries including Indonesia, Pakistan, and Malaysia. In order to combat the people smugglers further, the Australian government has put a bounty on their heads—not to literally take them out with a shotgun—but for information leading to their capture. If you can provide them with knowledge that will help them catch even a single smuggler, they will reward you with as much as $200,000 for your efforts. This may or may not be particularly effective, as those who would be interested in claiming the reward probably don’t know too many people smugglers, but perhaps it will be discouraging—only time will tell.

fact checked by Jamie Frater