Last week Amnesty visited Nauru and put out a report on Friday saying conditions there are "cruel, inhumane and degrading" and have created a "climate of anguish" for the men being held there.
Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
Speaker: Dr Graham Thom, Refugee Coordinator, Amnesty International Australia
THOM: We're hoping to meet with politicians from all the political parties here in Australia and that's the message I'll be putting loud and clear, because the situation on Nauru at the moment for those men is simply intolerable.
COUTTS: Well, we heard in the previous hour that Member of Parliament, Tony Windsor, one of the Independents, is saying they've got it wrong, the Houston Report is probably wrong as well. So have they got it wrong?
THOM: Well, I think the whole notion of No Advantage, that the panel put out is something that simply doesn't exist and to try and implement it in the way that they have has only helped to really damage some vulnerable people who are coming to Australia seeking protection. For the nearly 400 men on Nauru, they can't understand why they're there and not the other 7,000 that came post-August 13. The others are going to be in the Australian community, they're going to have housing in the community, whereas these guys are in tents on Nauru not knowing when their processing is even going to start. It just simply doesn't make sense and that's the problem and in order to implement it, we're paying large sums of money here in Australia to keep these poor guys hostage on a remote island - and for what?
COUTTS: "Cruel, inhuman and degrading". What conditions did you see to arrive you at those adjectives?
THOM: Well, I mean the big problem is they are arbitrarily detained, they really cannot come and go from where they are. It's a very, very small centre. The majority of it is taken up by the tents. The tents are very cramped, 14 men in the bigger tents and five in the smaller tents. So there's really only enough room to sleep. You couldn't have all those men standing up in the tent at once. They wouldn't just be able to move. They'd all be touching each other and it's too hot for them to stay in the tents during the day. There's no natural shading there. It's all that rocky gravel, so they can't really do any activities. There's a couple of table tennis tables there, but it's just oppressive and the only shade they can get is the sort of the encroaching jungle around the edges of the centre and it's dusty and when we were there, there was a torrential downpour and the camp literally flooded. There was half a foot of water sort of washing into the men's tents. It was just an extraordinary sight to see and the beds were getting soaked, so they couldn't sleep in them at night. It was an astonishing thing to be doing to men who have fled violence and torture and they were telling us how members of their families are still being killed, while they're here, they're trapped and not knowing what their future is and it was starting to really have a significant impact on both their physical and mental health.
COUTTS: Why are they still being held in these temporary conditions?
THOM: Well, there are all sorts of issues, when you're negotiating between two governments and then also on Nauru, the government has to negotiate with landholders. All the land there is privately owned by the local landholders and so the site where they're at is owned by a number of different groups and so they're trying to get the leases to be able to build more permanent structures. But there's not a lot of space on Nauru. It's only 21 square kilometres and so there's not a lot of accommodation for anybody, even visitors going there at the moment. There's only two hotels on the whole island and so we really can't understand why men were sent there without some of these basic things that sort out. Why wasn't any permanent structures built before they were sent there, why wasn't the processing set up, why wasn't issues around the visas, because even the visas they're on while they're asylum seekers, they can only be allowed out if they're monitored and so they just have absolutely no privacy in the centre and even when they are allowed out, which they have to be on a bus, because it's right in the middle of the island, they still have to be watched at all times and that sense "we're criminals, but we're not criminals", that was what we heard again, again and again.
COUTTS: While you were there compiling this report, making your assessment, did you also have any audiences with the government, the President Sprent Dabwido or Kieren Keke the Foriegn Minister?
THOM: We met with Kieren Keke , we met with a number of the other ministers. The Nauruan Government and government officials were very good in making time to meet with us and we're also able to visit the hospital and we went into the local prison as well, because as we know, there are now 14 men who've been charged with damaging property and so we wanted to see if they ended up in the prison, what did the prison look like and it's a very small prison. But also there were a number of men who are on hunger strike and they were at the local hospital, so we wanted to check out the capacity of the local hospital. But we did meet with the government. They were clearly doing their best to get things moving in terms of the leases and trying to get processing started, but they have very limited capacity. It's a very small country and really a lot of that should have been negotiated between Australia and Nauru before people were sent there, rather than having these men there in a highly agitated state and then having to create policy and even infrastructure around them while they're on the island.
COUTTS: Well Nauru and most recently Australia, of course, have signed on to the United Nations Convention of Asylum Seekers. But I'm just wondering when you describe this situation as "cruel, inhumane and degrading", whether breaches of that Convention have been made and what by international law have they contravened any of those laws?
THOM: Well, we definitely think taking people offshore to Nauru is a breach of the Refugee Convention for Australia. The Convention clearly states you're not allowed to penalise people based on their mode of arrival. And this is a significant penalty, we believe, for these 400 men. We also believe it's a breach of Australia's obligations not to arbitrarily detain people. These people are clearly be arbitrarily detained, they're locked up 24 hours in this camp with no processing in sight and this is also significant for the Nauruan government, because international law applies to them in the same way. And so they really have to be careful in coming on board with Australia in this to make sure that they're not going to be in breach of international law.
COUTTS: Well, it might have an impact on Nauru's international image, if not standing?
THOM: Well, it very well could and I think the worse the situation gets, the more embarrassing it is going to be for Nauru and we met a number of officials as I said who are very well-intentioned. They are hoping to do the best by these men as they can, but the potential for this to backfire and go horribly wrong as these men start to deteriorate, was very apparent to us. You just have to look at the record of what happens in detention centres here in Australia with self-harm, hunger strikes, suicides, riots. All this was clearly on show as a potential there in Nauru and for Nauru to be able to respond to that - with only 100 or so policemen and limited hospital capacity - things could go very, very wrong if they're not careful.
COUTTS: Well, there's been reports that asylum seekers on Nauru have been given leaflets suggesting they be maybe stuck there for an indefinite period of time. Have you seen those leaflets? Do they in fact exist?
THOM: They do exist and we have seen them and the Department of Immigration will say they're just giving the facts to these men. They're trying to tell it like it is in terms of the policy, but if you've come seeking protection and you're being told that you could be held up to five years or who knows how long in the conditions they're currently in, it's really heartbreaking for those guys and particularly when they're seeing people who are on the same boat as they were now about to be released into the Australian community and living in the Australian community and processed by Australian officials. They can't understand why they've been singled out and why this is happening to them and that's only further exacerbating their mental state and that's leading to some of the situations. One man we met had been on a hunger strike for over 40 days and he'd lost 19 kilograms. Another man was in the hospital and suffering, even though he'd only been on a hunger strike a short time, he was already really suffering the physical effects of that. So these sorts of things, the government has to think how it's going to play out in the minds of these men.
COUTTS: Will the government be getting its desired affect as acting as a deterrent.
THOM: Well, it hasn't shown to be at the moment and the reality is when there's only 400, less than 400 men on Nauru and then another 1,000 being allowed out into the Australian community even though they've now announced these harsher conditions that they're releasing people under. What sort of signal does that send to people who are vulnerable, who are fleeing Afghanistan or Iraq or Sri Lanka? Are they really going to care that Nauru's full up and these 400 men are suffering there if when they arrive there's no capacity for them offshore and they'll be in the Australian community. The policy no longer makes sense and just keeping those men and only those men on Nauru is bordering on cruel.