Above: Syrians fleeing the civil war register on arrival in Lebanon. Australia has been criticised for not accepting more refugees..
Amnesty International says Australia's refugee stance hurts its reputation
Amnesty says failure to accept more refugees from Syria and other conflicts compares badly with that of other countries
Australia has been taken to task by Amnesty International for failing to take in more refugees fleeing crises around the world.
In its review of 2013’s global humanitarian trends, Amnesty acknowledged Australia’s leadership role at the United Nations, but said its record on accepting refugees from conflict zones reflected badly on its human rights reputation and compared unfavourably with that of other countries.
Amnesty’s review of global developments, key moments and emerging trends in human rights around the globe found many countries taking enormous backwards steps, including “horrific” death tolls and displacements in the Central African Republic, Syria and Iraq.
Of the two nations in the review to have shown improvements – Burma and Papua New Guinea – there were nevertheless harsh criticisms of human rights abuses of Rohingya minorities in the former, and the reintroduction and expansion of death penalty sentences and methods in the latter.
Amnesty called on Australia to respond to the global refugee crisis and to human rights abuses in its region as a global leader, and for Tony Abbott to be “a goodie not a baddie”. It said the nation should “address its own failings and re-establish its reputation for human rights it was once known for”.
“Australia’s been really inconsistent when it comes to human rights,” Amnesty International Australia’s national director, Claire Mallinson, told Guardian Australia.
“It has done some really great work in the last year in terms of playing a global leadership role, [such as] getting an arms trade treaty agreed to at the United Nations – which has got the potential to save millions of lives - and just this weekend with the UN security council, managing to get a long overdue humanitarian resolution on Syria through.”
“But 2.3 million [people] had had to flee the conflict there, and yet we’ve said that we’ll take 500 humanitarian refugees, and that’s out of our existing intake. We’re not even increasing our annual intake,” she said.
Amnesty said Australia was capable of taking 7,500 Syrian refugees, taking into account various “per capita factors” and looking at Germany’s recent decision to take 10,000.
“I would really expect the prime minister, as chair of the G20, to actually do something similar in relation to Syria,” Mallinson said.
“If we step up to the plate and say we’ll take 7,500 that will go a long way to encouraging the other G20 members to reach the 100,000 that the UNHCR have said is the minimum needed,” she said.
“It’s actually countries that are not well off, and not within Australia’s league when it looks at World Bank tables … who are actually taking the brunt of the situation,” she said, citing Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, who have sheltered almost 2m between them.
The report also repeated calls by Amnesty to close offshore processing centres for asylum seekers, and end their “deplorable and unlawful” mandatory detention on Nauru and Manus Island.
“One of the facts that really shocks … is that we’ve put Syrians on Manus Island,” Mallinson said. “People who have fled the horrendous conflict that everyone is seeing on their TV screens, have managed to get their way to Australia, and then we’ve gone and put them on Manus Island.”
“Australia historically has had an incredibly proud record in terms of its refugees. It would be far cheaper to process people in Australia. Clearly it’s far more humane, and we would be fulfilling our human rights responsibilities and taking a leadership role.”
On Sunday it was revealed the Australian government had asked Cambodia take refugees off Australia’s hands, which Mallinson described as a wealthy nation “trying to outsource its human rights responsibilities”.
“It was only a few years ago that the UNHCR actually put forward to the UN that Cambodia was forcibly sending vulnerable refugees back to China,” she said.
The review also looked at key moments in global development, including the adoption of the arms trade treaty regulating the $70bn global weapons trade, the death of Nelson Mandela and the work of young Afghan girl Malala Yousafzai to focus global attention on girls’ education.
Amnesty was critical of Australia’s “shockingly high” rate of indigenous incarceration, cuts to Indigenous legal aid, the secrecy of immigration minister Scott Morrison, and the silence of Australia when Indonesia resumed executions in March, despite politicians voicing their opposition to the practice.
“With a new year ahead, comes a chance for real and lasting change,” the review concluded.
“Amnesty International looks to prime minister Tony Abbott to, in his own words, be a ‘goodie not a baddie’. Australia has a chance to present itself as a genuine global leader, by taking a human rights-based approach to international security issues and domestic policies.”
Australia trafficks and abuses asylum seeker children
In transporting imprisoned children over national borders, Canberra is not only involved in trafficking but also exposing them to more abuse.
In the heated debates about asylum seekers, including the tragic death of Reza Berati on Manus Island, there is one group that is always forgotten: children. Ten years ago we lamented the fact that there were about 100 children held in Australia's immigration detention prisons, arguing that those children were subject to ''organised'' and ''ritualised'' abuse by the Australian government.
We used the term ''ritualised abuse'' to explain that the children were subject to formal and repeated acts of abuse, carried out under a belief system that the government adopted to justify such cruelty. We used the term ''organised abuse'' to illustrate that children were being abused by many perpetrators who acted together in ways they knew could be extremely harmful.
Ten years later, there are 10 times as many children subject to this organised, ritualised practice on the Australian mainland, Christmas Island and Nauru. Children without parents, dismissively referred to as ''unaccompanied minors'', are now joining transported families with children on Nauru.
As the abuse has markedly increased, we have further refined our definition to incorporate ''commercialised trafficking'' in children. Australia is now trafficking more children across national borders, defying UN protocols of trafficking in persons. As the tragic events on Manus Island unfolded, there was barely a murmur about what was occurring in the second offshore imprisonment site of Nauru, with 10 unaccompanied children forcibly sent there from Christmas Island; more have now followed. Through deliberately misleading and confusing terminology, these trafficked children are described in various ways; ''transferees'' and ''illegals'' are being sent to ''secure'' detention sites, rather than to imprisonment.
According to a definition found through the UNICEF website, based on engagements with international agencies, ''A child has been trafficked if he or she has been moved within a country, or across borders, whether by force or not, with the purpose of exploiting the child''. Among the factors that render a trafficked child vulnerable, according to this definition, are that they ''cannot speak the language, are disadvantaged by their legal status, suffer a lack of access to basic services (such as education and healthcare), or do not know the environment''. All these apply to children we have trafficked to Nauru.
There is more. All those who contribute to this movement of children, and know what they do is likely to lead to child exploitation, are themselves traffickers. They include ''recruiters, intermediaries, document providers, transporters, corrupt officials, employers and exploiters''.
''Duty of care'' and ''risk management'' are terms familiar to Australians. Sending children to Nauru is a serious abrogation of duty of care and poses untold risks to unaccompanied children. Riots and fires on Nauru last year, and recent events on Manus Island, starkly reveal the impact of locking up innocent people and taking away all hopes and rights. For children to witness such events, sometimes without the protection of a parent, increases the well-documented harm that results from being locked up for indeterminate periods.
Imprisoned children's voices are haunting. In Human Rights Overboard we recounted narratives about so many childhoods lost. One boy who was 11 when detained on Nauru told us: ''I felt my childhood was being washed away by detention. It's like watching an R-rated movie you are not supposed to watch. It included sexual content, very coarse language, violence, suicide and every horrible experience that you can imagine. Children experienced the grown up world when they are not ready for it.''
Last December a well-known non-government organisation advertised for an ''Unaccompanied Minor Manager'' on Nauru, specifying that a key objective would be to ''reduce the risk of abuse, neglect, exploitation or harm to unaccompanied minors''. A noble statement, but given the remote location, the tensions and children's past experiences, such a goal is not achievable.
In 1992, in his renowned Redfern speech, Paul Keating referred to indigenous stolen children and spoke of our failure to imagine such things happening to us. Ironically, it was Keating's government that introduced mandatory detention of asylum seekers. Our national cruelty continues as we fail to imagine what it would be like if our own children were harshly imprisoned without cause, without limit and without hope.
In effect, the government is moving children for profit, exactly what they accuse people smugglers of doing. The profit is not only financial for the range of stakeholders, but unashamedly political. Those colluding with exploitation of children for political and financial gain include government departments, ground and air transport personnel, private security companies and ''humanitarian'' organisations. In this tangled web, ritualised abuse of children is shrouded by the shrill, simplistic message of Stop the Boats, unconscionably punishing these children to deter others.
In 2004, the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention found children held in these facilities ''had suffered numerous and repeated breaches of their human rights''. The inquiry found that our detention policies ''failed to protect the mental health of children, failed to provide adequate healthcare and education and failed to protect unaccompanied children and those with disabilities''.
Such are the continuing concerns that the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, announced on February 3 that she is leading another inquiry, 10 years later.
During the past 10 years, there were occasions when we foolishly hoped that children would be freed. Not only were these hopes dashed, but imprisoning asylum seeker children increased in scale, intensity and cruelty. This cruel punishment has become less unusual.
We live in a vast and wealthy nation ''with boundless plains to share''. We can afford to be fair. Unless we reverse this blight on our nation, children's anguish will continue to shame us.
How many more childhoods will be washed away while children remain imprisoned?
“...“Australia’s been really inconsistent when it comes to human rights,” Amnesty International Australia’s national director, Claire Mallinson, told Guardian Australia...”.