Embarrassing Truths: Australia’s Treatment of Asylum Seekers


In May 2015, the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott claimed that Australians were ‘sick of being lectured to by the United Nations’ about human rights violations occurring in Australian detention centres. In reality, the Australian public has demonstrated time and time again that we are not OK with the Federal Government’s migration policies. Despite an abrupt change in leadership in September last year, draconian policies lacking in public support mean that Australia continues to be embarrassed on the world stage.

Human Rights Watch has recently released its 2016 World Report. The Report, which analyses the events of 2015, shames Australia’s asylum-seeker policy and states that ‘the government’s failure to respect international standards for asylum seekers and refugees continues to take a heavy toll’. The Report criticises Australia’s outsourcing of some of its obligations to poorer countries such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea, the practice of turning back boats carrying asylum-seekers in unsafe conditions, and the squalid detention facilities where asylum-seekers are held for indefinite periods, many without hope of ever being resettled.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has expressed ‘concern’ over Australia’s refugee policy, but is yet to make any changes since taking office. In the wake of his leadership victory Turnbull said ‘I have the same concerns about the situation of people on Manus and Nauru…as I think all Australians do.’ And yet, the latest reports from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection show that the average time asylum-seekers spend in Australian detention centres has increased to a record high of 14 months, with 23.5% of detainees spending more than two years in detention. In addition, the company which operates Australia’s detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru has had its contract extended by another year, showing no sign of Australia retreating from the offshore processing strategy.

Prior to taking the leadership Turnbull had also commented on the practice of detaining refugee children, saying ‘children in detention is something nobody wants’. And yet, children remain in detention. Current activism is particularly focused on this issue, with the ‘Let Them Stay’ campaign pleading with the government not to return 267 asylum seekers, including 37 babies born in Australia and another 52 children, back to offshore processing facilities. The sobering evidence of the conditions in these facilities document severe shortages of water, footwear, and clothing. It also shows that unhygienic, crowded conditions have resulted in outbreaks of lice, gastroenteritis, and bacterial skin infections. A 2015 parliamentary senate inquiry into Nauru found that the conditions were ‘not adequate, appropriate or safe’. The inquiry also found evidence of sexual and physical assault of children and adults at the hands of staff and other detainees. These reports do not stand alone, and are backed up by the UN Special Rapporteur’s finding that Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers breaches the Convention Against Torture (particularly the detention of children), as well as the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Forgotten Children Report published in July 2015 which documents the serious effects of detention on children.

The United Nations, the Australian Human Rights Commission, a parliamentary senate inquiry, and a number of non-governmental organisations have strongly recommended that children be removed from immigration detention, and that the appalling living conditions be improved. To date, the Australian Government’s actions remain an international embarrassment. Despite mounting pressure, our Government continues to enforce policies that breach international human rights, and endanger the physical and mental health of thousands of vulnerable individuals.


This article was written by Caitlin Eaton, the Human Rights Defender Summer Student Editor. To subscribe or read more about the HRD, click here.


Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Marren (Instagram @siobhan_marren)