By Bernard LaganOctober 12, 2012
The United Nations was not happy with Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers — and that was before a refugee in the Nauru detention centre attempted suicide.
The Australian government appears to be entering a stand-off with the United Nations Refugee Agency over its treatment of asylum seekers being sent to the remote Pacific island of Nauru and its plans to send others to Papua New Guinea’s equally remote Manus Island.
The tensions have been exacerbated by the first suicide attempt of an asylum seeker being held on Nauru since the government implemented its so-called Pacific Solution to boat arrivals in August. On Thursday an Iranian man reportedly attempted to hang himself at the Nauru detention centre. He was discovered blue in the face and rescued by fellow asylum seekers and staff.
The Sydney advocacy group, the Refugee Action Coalition, learned of the suicide attempt when another Iranian asylum seeker on Nauru made a phone call later on Thursday. The Coalition’s spokesman, Ian Rintoul, said the caller believed other asylum seekers on Nauru — now numbering over 250 in total — were becoming frustrated and depressed because their main activity was to eat and sleep.
“He said there was nothing to do, there was no sport, no space, no books, no library and they were just eating and sleeping, eating and sleeping,” said Mr Rintoul.
He said the suicide attempt had followed a visit to Nauru made last week by the Minister for Immigration, Mr Chris Bowen, during which Mr Bowen had informed asylum seekers that it would be eight to ten months before processing of claims for refugee status would begin to be considered.
Mr Bowen’s office told The Global Mail that the Minister had made no such statement whilst on Nauru. Whilst Mr Bowen had discussed the Government’s determination that those arriving in Australia by boat would have no advantage over others in attempting to gain permanent entry to Australia, he had made no specific statements on the duration of processing.
Nevertheless the backlog of asylum seekers being held within Australia and on Nauru awaiting the processing of their claims for refugee status is now building up into the thousands. Since the government announced on August 13 that it would re-activate offshore asylum seeker processing centres on Nauru and PNG’s Manus Island, the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat into Australian waters has not diminished – despite the government’s hopes that the return to offshore processing would deter boat arrivals.
The government suspended the refugee processing claims when it announced the re-activation of the offshore centres on August 13. But despite that action some 4,000 boat people have arrived since. Most are still being held in Australia’s detention centres as the Australian Defence Force hurries to enlarge the capacity on Nauru and to get the Manus Island centre back up to a standard at which it can begin taking asylum seekers. The latest boat was intercepted carrying 70 people off the Cocos (Keeling) Islands on Friday, making it the fourth boat arrival in two days. Since Tuesday, October 9, 334 asylum seekers have arrived in Australian waters.
On Friday the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee’s representative in Canberra, Mr Richard Towle, spoke out on ABC Radio about the build up of the thousands of asylum seekers both within Australia and on Nauru caught up in the suspension of the processing of their claims for refugee status.
“These are operational questions for the Australian government to consider. But it’s very clear that if you have these burgeoning numbers of people, now as you say up towards 4,000, it’s very important that they be subjected to a process of refugee status determination as quickly as possible. What we’ve found in the past when there were suspensions of Afghans and Sri Lankan cases two years ago, this actually caused a lot of administrative headaches and caused delays in processing which finally impacted on psychological health.”
Mr Towle’s statement enlarges the stand-off the government is entering with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr Antonio Guterres, over its treatment of asylum seekers.
On Thursday Mr Guterres, in a formal letter responding to the government’s re-activation of the offshore processing centre on PNG’s Manus Island, said that PNG had neither the “competence or capacity” to process the refugee claims on asylum seekers transferred from Australia.
Mr Bowen’s spokeswoman said the government “would have more to say in due course” on the processing arrangements for asylum seekers.