Updated August 12 to include RACP statement
The shocking scale of trauma and abuse inflicted on asylum seekers held in offshore detention that was revealed on Wednesday by Guardian Australia has prompted demands from health and human rights groups for greater transparency, protection and accountability.
Guardian Australia has drawn from more than 2,000 leaked incident reports from the Nauru detention centre – totalling more than 8,000 pages – that set out reports of assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm attempts, and appalling living conditions. It says children are vastly over-represented in the reports.
It quoted Anna Neistat, senior director for research at Amnesty International, as saying the massive leak “laid bare a system of ‘routine dysfunction and cruelty’ that is at once dizzying in its scale and utterly damning for the Australian authorities who tried so hard to maintain a veil of secrecy.”
Australian Medical Association President Dr Michael Gannon called on the government to establish a transparent, national statutory body of clinical experts, independent of Government, with the power to investigate and report to the Parliament on the health and welfare of asylum seekers and refugees in Australia and in offshore detention.
Gannon had previously vowed to tone down the advocacy on asylum seeker issues by his predecessor Brian Owler, saying refugee politics were not core business for the AMA unless they related to health.
Today he said “the reports of abuse, trauma, self-harm, sexual assault, inadequate health services, and deplorable living conditions for asylum seekers, especially children, demand urgent action from the Government.”
His statement continued:
“These disturbing reports echo long-held concerns by the AMA about the lack of proper physical and mental health care being provided to people in immigration detention.
The reports detail high levels of trauma and mental illness, especially in children being detained on Nauru.
“Having children in detention is harmful – it causes physical, psychological, emotional, and developmental harms.
The AMA has called for all children to be removed from detention facilities and placed into the community, where they can be properly cared for.”
Gannon said that the AMA regularly receives reports from asylum seekers and their advocates – from within and outside the medical profession – detailing failures to provide proper physical and mental health treatment and services for asylum seekers.
“The AMA believes doctors must be able to speak out on these issues without fear of retribution or prosecution.
We need greater transparency and we need more clinical input to policies regarding the health of asylum seekers.”
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) also renewed its calls for asylum seekers to be released into the community while their claims are assessed, expressing particular concern for the number of reports involving children. RACP Paediatrics & Child Health Division President Dr Sarah Dalton said:
“These leaked reports reinforce what we have already heard from paediatricians in our membership – that conditions in immigration detention are a significant health risk.
“The evidence is very clear. Cases involving children including sexual abuse, assault depression, anxiety and self-harm happen far too regularly.
As paediatricians we understand that children are particularly vulnerable and the impact of these conditions can be lifelong.
A change in approach is long overdue. We need to rethink immigration detention and release all asylum seekers into the community whilst their claims are being processed. Community-based placement is a viable and effective option.”
Dalton also criticised the penalties under the Australian Border Force Act that threatened those health professionals who spoke out about their concerns.
“Currently, health and medical professionals face up to two years in jail if they speak out on behalf of their patients.
The ABF Act inhibits health professionals from fulfilling their legal and professional and ethical obligations to advocate for the best possible patient care.”
Responding to Guardian Australia‘s reports, Treasurer Scott Morrison – the former Immigration Minister responsible for asylum seeker policies – stressed the leaked documents were “reports of allegations”, “not findings of fact.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the reports were ultimately the responsibility of the Nauru Government, although he said they would be “reviewed to see whether and to what extent they have been dealt with.”
The Federal Opposition, which has sought to match the government’s harshness in asylum seeker policies (though with some important distinctions – see this pre-election analysis), renewed its calls for the creation of an Independent Children’s Advocate in the wake of the “disturbing incidents of abuse” outlined by Guardian Australia.
It noted this was the second set of documents released in as many weeks alleging incidents of abuse in Australia’s offshore detention network, following the release of a report last week from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Opposition Immigration and Border Protection spokesman Shayne Neumann said:
Where children are in detention they must be afforded first rate health, mental health and education services and that any cases of abuse or mistreatment are the subject of mandatory reporting.
These troubling reports are clear indications that the Turnbull Government’s management of offshore detention facilities fails to meet Australia’s obligation to provide safe, dignified and humane treatment for all people seeking asylum.
The culture of secrecy that the Turnbull Government has cultivated needs to end.
The Turnbull Government must reveal whether these serious and disturbing alleged incidents of abuse have been investigated and the outcomes of those investigations.
Further, the Turnbull Government must find a durable and secure third country resettlement arrangement as a matter of priority.
The Refugee Council of Australia called for all asylum seekers on Nauru to be brought to immediate safety in Australia and an independent investigation into all the claims made in the ‘Nauru Files’.
It said that despite the lack of transparency and access to Nauru, the dire situation of vulnerable people held there has been consistently raised to the Government. Independent reports from the Australian Human Rights Commission, a recent report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, a Senate Inquiry, and the Government’s own Moss Report, have raised serious questions that have yet to be answered. It said:
“The veil of secrecy is gone and now the Australian public can know in sickening detail of the abuse that is being perpetrated in their name on Nauru. We must act immediately to secure the safety of these vulnerable people in our care.
As the Government has done in the Northern Territory when serious abuse has been brought to its attention, there needs to be an independent investigation into all the claims in the Narau files.
Other groups, including the Greens, have called for a Royal Commission into abuse in offshore detention.