Amnesty International’s fact-finding visit to Nauru

Roselina Press in conversation with Alex Pagliaro
From 19-22 November 2012, a team from Amnesty International, headed by Amnesty’s Refugee Policy Expert Dr Graham Thom, conducted the first independent investigation of the Australian immigration detention centre in Nauru to determine the human rights situation on the ground. On their return, Amnesty released its findings in the briefing paper, Nauru Offshore Processing Facility Review 2012. Alex Pagliaro was one of Amnesty’s researchers who visited Nauru and Right Now’s Roselina Press spoke to her about what she saw there and why Amnesty calls for the Australian government to rethink its long-term detention policy.

Right Now: Could you describe what you saw when you arrived at the detention centre in Nauru?

Alex Pagliaro: The conditions were appalling and much worse than anything we had seen in mainland detention centres. The men are kept in a very small area. It’s probably the size of half a football field. The surface of the whole area is just grey gravel, and most of that is taken up by the tents where the men live. The tents are just green army tents in rows. Men are crammed into them like 16 or 17 in a big one or five or six in a small one. And it really just is full of the army stretcher beds that are in there, so there is not any room to move around or to do anything in the tents.

They’re getting three or four hours of sleep, and they’re being woken by the man who is a foot away from them crying while he thinks about his family back home.

And the tents get incredibly hot during the day. Nauru is very hot and has about 80 per cent humidity most of the time so the tents reach 40 or 50 degrees during the afternoon. And then when it rains it cools down a little bit, but the tents actually flood. There are lots of leaks in the tops of the tents and we were wading through nearly a foot of water while we were walking around the compound during the rain, just to get into the tents. The tents are so inappropriate for people to be living in for months at a time, especially vulnerable people, and we heard a lot of men tell us that they just couldn’t sleep. It’s so hot in those tents because they retain the heat that they can’t get to sleep until one or two in the morning. And then it warms up again by early in the morning, so they’re getting three or four hours of sleep, and they’re being woken by the man who is a foot away from them crying while he thinks about his family back home. So you just add lack of sleep to all those other factors and it is leading to a dangerous situation.

Are there plans to construct more permanent structures that take into account the environmental conditions?

Absolutely. We saw the plans for actual accommodation and actual facilities to be built, which is excellent, although that hasn’t started yet. [The Australian government] can’t start it until they find a lease for the land, but they haven’t managed to find that yet. They have to negotiate with a whole lot of Nauruan landowners and so it’s really complicated and so the fact that they have put vulnerable people in that situation before they’ve even signed the lease for the land where they need to build the accommodation for those people to go is pretty shocking and completely unacceptable.

Our other concern for when they start building the accommodation is that they’re going to be building it in the same compound that the men are now, so that will not only lead to more lack of space, lack of privacy for the men, they will be crammed into an even smaller space, but they’ll be doing massive construction literally metres away from where the men are living in tents at the moment, so the dust and the noise will be pretty severe.

© Department of Immigration and Citizenship

“We’re being treated worse than criminals. At least criminals know how long they’re going to be locked up for and criminals know that they have done something wrong.”

The Amnesty International Nauru Offshore Processing Facility Review reports that the majority of asylum seekers Amnesty spoke with felt as though they were being punished for seeking asylum by boat. Are you able to share some of the stories you heard from individuals being detained about what life on Nauru is like and what they’re feeling?

I think every single man we spoke to reiterated the view that they just wanted to know why they were there. What is the reason if it is not for being punished for seeking asylum? And that is hard for us to answer because there isn’t a good reason, and so we do believe that Nauru is, at the end of the day, a penalty for coming to Australia by boat, which is firstly illegal under international law, but also pretty morally reprehensible by the government.

These are people who have fled unimaginable horror in their country, but to get to Australia and then be told, “actually you are going to be sent to some small island in the middle of nowhere and we are just going to pick a few hundred of you.” And they also found out while we were on the island that a lot of people on the mainland would be released into the community, so it was really hard for them to understand. The men said things like, “why us? Why are we being sent here? We’re being treated worse than criminals. At least criminals know how long they’re going to be locked up for and criminals know that they have done something wrong, that’s why they’re locked up. But for us the not knowing these things is going to destroy our minds.”

And we heard over and over again things like, “we have been sent here to be punished. The only reason to send us here is to force us to return home. There is no reason for us to be here. We came to Australia seeking safety and protection. We didn’t come to Nauru, we’d never heard of Nauru before.” So they were just so distressed. And I think not being able to find any sense in it or any justice or fairness in it is really damaging to them.

You’ve got to remember that these are men who have largely fled repressive regimes, who have been tortured and threatened and their families have been attacked for what they believe in or what they stood up for, so they have been through a lot to get to Australia and finally reach a country that supposedly is going to be very different from their country, a country that is finally going to respect their rights and give them some kind of protection. But then to be put into this situation where you’re not cared for properly and you don’t feel like you’re being treated with any fairness or justice is, for a lot of them, erasing any hope that they will have a future. And that is what is slowly breaking their ability to cope.

So it is possible that victims of torture or abuse are being held at Nauru? What kinds of assistance and care do they receive?

I’m not an expert in trauma or torture care, but from the interviews that we did with individuals, and even groups, it’s very clear that there are many survivors of torture and trauma there. Some of the stories we were told about what has happened to people in Sri Lanka, or Iran, or Afghanistan is really horrific, and something that is really hard to comprehend as an Australian.

In terms of the care there, it’s fairly good from what we could see. There are mental health nurses, they have visiting psychologists and physiatrists, but at the end of the day these men are being held in a situation that is continuing to traumatise them. Obviously with mental health care it’s very hard to treat someone for what they’ve experienced in the past if what they’re experiencing in the present is continuing to [negatively] affect their state of mind. While it is very important that there is the proper care there to try and mitigate [trauma] as much as possible, you are never going to be able to care for vulnerable, damaged men properly when they are in that sort of situation.

Could you tell us about the mental health situation in Nauru? The Amnesty Review described how hunger strikes, self-harm and suicide attempts are commonplace.

We have seen the mental health situation in Nauru deteriorate a lot faster than we would expect. Generally we find in the mainland detention centres that people’s mental health starts to deteriorate after three to six months, that’s when things start to get quite bad. Whereas here we have a situation where after only two months we have multiple hunger strikes, so many different suicide attempts, some which are very serious. And we think this is due to the extreme amount of uncertainty these men are under. They don’t know how long they’re going to be there or why they’re there, or when their processing will start. So this is leading to some serious medical issues because people are harming themselves.

Medical care is limited on Nauru. It is a very small island, there are only 8,000-10,000 inhabitants, and there are limited medical facilities that you can erect at a camp like Nauru. There is medical staff there and they are probably doing a fairly good job but there are limitations and they’re working under a Nauruan hospital, which again is set up for a very small population and relies on a lot of visiting specialists who fly in two or three times a year.

We did see recently a man who had kidney failure in the camp. He had to be flown back to Brisbane because that care wasn’t available [at Nauru]. In terms of the care for the hunger strikers, that becomes difficult because there is not much you can do to someone who refuses to eat. It is his decision not to eat. I think it is important to look at hunger strikes as more of a mental health issue, rather than a physical health issue. And as Omid, the man who [has been on a prolonged] hunger strike, said to us, “my physical condition is terrible and I’ve lost over 19 kilograms but it’s my psychological condition that is much worse and that is really the problem.”

Physical health concerns are definitely an issue, especially when people probably have illnesses or issues that are related to torture and trauma that a Nauruan hospital is not going to have much experience with, and I think this will continue to be an issue, but I think our priorities are those mental health concerns.

They are not criminals, they have not done anything illegal in arriving in Australia to seek asylum.

Officials in Nauru are setting up the legislation and regulations necessary to process asylum seekers from scratch and it will takes some months before processing can begin. What are the consequences, perhaps aside from the mental health concerns you’ve outlined, of detaining asylum seekers without processing them?

Aside from the mental health consequences of that uncertainty and lack of purpose, it does mean that those men are unlawfully and arbitrarily detained because there is no valid reason at the moment for locking them up. They are not criminals, they have not done anything illegal in arriving in Australia to seek asylum so they therefore have not been charged with a criminal act.

In Nauru detention is arbitrary and unlawful and it does break human rights law. Both the Australian government and the Nauruan government seem to disregard that. I would like to see a lot more effort into passing that legislation [necessary to process asylum seekers on Nauru] and pushing that through speedily.

However, it just goes back to the point of why you send men into that situation when there are no processes in the first place.

© Department of Immigration and Citizenship

Punishing people that do arrive here and putting them through even more inhumane conditions is simply not the act of a civilised nation.

Explaining the decision to introduce community release for the majority of asylum seekers who arrived after 13 August, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said that the “overriding moral and humanitarian obligation on the Australian government is to stop people drowning at sea”, which requires the government to make “difficult decisions”. What is your view? Is this a fair assessment of our government’s obligations?

No. Of course stopping people from drowning at sea is hugely important and it is so tragic every time that happens when you know that most of those people have already fled horrific circumstances and have arrived so close to safety and have lost their lives at sea. It is really tragic. However there are lots of ways to address that issue and reduce the numbers that do make that voyage. Punishing people that do arrive here and putting them through even more inhumane conditions is simply not the act of a civilised nation.

Also we are running the real risk of asylum seekers who do arrive here and end up on Nauru choosing to go home and face real danger at home because they just cannot stay in Nauru for five years. I spoke to many men who talked about that and talked about the pressure they were feeling to return home when they didn’t know how long they would be on Nauru. And from Nauru it is almost impossible for them to look after their families who they have left behind. And so we do run the risk of forcing real refugees, who could be killed in their home countries, making that choice to return. And if that starts to happen, not only would that be breaking international law but it would be an incredibly sad day for our national character.

Asylum seekers primarily undertake dangerous boat journeys because of the lack of opportunities for fair and effective processing in our region. In your opinion, what are some of the steps that could be taken to find a regional solution?

A regional solution is complicated and I suppose that is one of the reasons why governments like focusing on domestic deterrence policies because it’s hard to fit a regional solution in a catchy slogan.

But there are so many things the Australian government could be doing through the region in terms of making people safer in countries of transit like Malaysia and Thailand and Indonesia, so that is things like setting up shelters for refugees and making sure refugees do have more rights than they currently do in those countries and trying to provide more access to the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) in those countries. Because there is simply no official pathway for the vast majority of refugees. There is no way for them to often even contact the UNHCR let alone register and be picked to be resettled in a country like Australia. So there are things the Australian government can do to work with the UNHCR, such as to give them more funding and resources so they can reach more people in those countries and offer more protection.

The Australian government could also play a really important role in getting other countries to offer more resettlement places. At the moment there are only a handful. There are basically only three countries, Australia, Canada and the USA, who offer a meaningful number of resettlement places.

Australia can use its experience in resettling refugees to encourage countries to do more and to show them how it’s done and ultimately have positive benefits for our country.

All these things take time and take some financial resources, but nowhere near as much as locking people up on Nauru and Manus which is costing us in the billions of dollars.

But regarding respect for human rights, what message does Australia’s asylum policies send to our neighbours?

Well I guess that is the other serious problem with these kinds of deterrence policies. Not only does it mean that we are not focusing on the regional protection policies that will work but it also makes it harder to get to those policies because if a country like Australia that is very wealthy, has a lot of space, has a small population, and is supposed to be a human rights leader, is coming up with these extreme policies to avoid its responsibilities towards refugees and asylum seekers, then how are we going to approach countries like Malaysia and Thailand and South Korea and other countries in the region and get them to do more to protect refugees and asylum seekers?

We end up in a situation where refugees have nowhere to turn in the region, and so Australia will always be a place where they want to come because we are a country that is safe and stable, and we have signed the Refugee Convention.

Long-term detention is a policy that just doesn’t work on any level and I cannot see a reason for it beyond the awful politics of the issue.

Earlier this year you were also a member of an Amnesty delegation that visited a number of Australian detention facilities including Christmas Island. Now that you have recently returned from Nauru, do you have an overall assessment of Australia’s asylum and detention policy?

In Australia our whole detention policy is centred around the idea of punishment and deterrence and this is severely problematic for a lot of reasons. Firstly because it does not work, it has been proven by numerous research reports by the UNHCR and every expert will tell you why detention as a deterrence simply does not work.

But beyond the fact that it does not work, it is very inhumane. We know that detention wherever it is, whether it is on Nauru or Christmas Island or Villawood in Sydney, does lead to serious long-term mental health problems with refugees.

The other problem is that it is not very good for Australia because the vast majority who are in our detention centres end up settling permanently in Australia and becoming Australian citizens. And not only are we paying billions of dollars to lock them up, but we then have to pay a whole lot of money to integrate them in our society and to repair them and to repair all of the damage that we have caused by locking them up in the first place.

Long-term detention is a policy that just doesn’t work on any level and I cannot see a reason for it beyond the awful politics of the issue. And that is something I think all Australians should start to question a bit more.

Alex Pagliaro is a Refugee Action Coordinator for Amnesty International’s Refugee Campaign, helping to ensure that the rights of refugees and asylum seekers are protected in Australia. Alex has also been a Refugee Case Worker with Amnesty International and worked in Tanzania for a year. Alex has a degree in International Studies from the University of Adelaide.