1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Continued violation

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezAugust 5, 2014

Australia has sent 157 asylum-seekers to a detention center on the island of Nauru after holding them at sea for weeks. AI's Graeme McGregor accuses Canberra of undertaking a "secretive program of interceptions."

Suspected asylum seekers arrive at to Flying Fish Cove, Christmas Island, after being intercepted and escorted in by the Australian Navy, on August 3, 2013 near Christmas Island, Indian Ocean Territories, Australia.
Image: Getty Images

The asylum seekers, thought to be mostly ethnic Tamils from Sri Lanka, were eventually brought to the Australian mainland to be interviewed by Indian consular officials with a view to returning them to that country, but Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said they all refused to meet the officials. All 157, including 50 children, were then transferred to the island of Nauru to be processed and either resettled or returned to Sri Lanka, Morrison said in a statement.

The asylum seekers had left the Indian port of Pondicherry in June, but were intercepted by Australian authorities and held on a Customs ship for weeks. They were the first asylum seekers to reach the Australian mainland by boat since December. Australia's conservative government has been facing growing international scrutiny over its policy of turning back boats carrying potential refugees.

In a DW interview, Graeme McGregor, refugee campaign coordinator for Amnesty International Australia, says Canberra continues to violate its responsibilities under the Refugee Convention by failing to assess claims for refugee status made by the asylum seekers in Australia.

DW: The asylum seekers were kept at sea for weeks before being brought to Australia. Why?

Graeme McGregor: It's hard to know the Australian government's intentions in detaining the 157 asylum seekers, including 50 children, at sea for a month. Since their election in September 2013, the coalition-led government has been committed to preventing boats of asylum seekers from reaching Australia. In the past, 90 percent of those arriving by boat have been found to be refugees fleeing persecution.

Graeme McGregor Amnesty International Australia
McGregor: "There is no evidence that the asylum seekers refused to meet with the Indian officials before they were transferred to Nauru"Image: Amnesty International Australia

To do that, they have been carrying out a secretive program of interceptions and turn-backs of asylum seeker boats, sending people back to Sri Lanka, Indonesia or elsewhere in their boats or in lifeboats. The Australian public is not permitted to know how many boats are intercepted or how the asylum seekers are treated.

In this case, there is evidence that the Australian government considered a number of options, including sending the Tamil asylum seekers on to Sri Lanka or putting them in lifeboats back to India. They were prevented from doing so by an injunction from the High Court of Australia, which was investigating the legality of the interception.

Why were the asylum seekers brought to the Australia mainland only to be interviewed by Indian consular officials?

The Australian government has refused to reveal this to the public. However, one outcome of bringing the asylum seekers to the Australian mainland was that the High Court investigation into the legality of the interception was abandoned, as the circumstances of the case had changed significantly.

The government claimed that they had struck a deal with India that any Indian nationals would be permitted to return voluntarily to the South Asian nation, and that the Indian government would consider accepting long-term residents as well. In the end, lawyers representing the asylum seekers claim the 157 men, women and children were transferred to Nauru before these offers could be properly considered.

Once on the Australian mainland, did the asylum seekers also meet with Australian immigration officials to have their claims reviewed?

As far as we're aware, the Australian government continued to violate its responsibilities under the Refugee Convention by failing to assess claims for refugee status made by the asylum seekers in Australia. Those claims will, instead, be assessed in Nauru.

Could you think of any reason why the asylum seekers would refuse to meet the Indian consular officials?

There is no evidence that the asylum seekers refused to meet with the Indian officials before they were transferred to Nauru. Lawyers representing the asylum seekers say their clients did not refuse to meet with the Indian officials.

The Indian government had said they would accept the voluntary return of Indian nationals, and would consider accepting the voluntary return of long-term residents of India. However, according to statements from lawyers, it seems the asylum seekers were denied this opportunity.

What's more, if there were Indian nationals among the 157 asylum seekers, it is extremely unusual, and very concerning, to allow officials from the country a person has fled to come and meet with them in detention.

Though comparatively supportive of refugees and asylum seekers, India is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention and therefore does not provide equal rights and long-term stability to refugees. As a non-signatory, there are no legal barriers to prevent India from returning asylum seekers and refugees to their country of origin.

What awaits the asylum seekers in Nauru?

Amnesty International was denied access to the asylum seeker detention centre on Nauru in April 2014. For that reason, we don't know for certain what conditions are like in the facility. However, leaked official reports and testimony from staff members provide strong evidence that conditions in the facility are harsh, humiliating and endangering the health and welfare of those held there, particularly pregnant women and children. The incidence of mental health problems, including self-harm and attempted suicide, is reported to be extremely high, with limited mental health support available.

Asylum seeker families, including infants, live together in large tents and sleep on folding canvas beds with little protection from the heat. There is no pediatrician in the detention center and no life support facilities for children on Nauru. There are insufficient pre- and post-natal healthcare facilities, meaning pregnant women must be flown to Australia to give birth or if something goes wrong. There is no blood bank on the island. The flight to a hospital in Australia takes 24-36 hours and costs 85,000 AUD each time.

Who is the photographer: Australian Government, Department of Immigration and Border Protection
Asylum seeker families, including infants, live together in large tents and sleep on folding canvas beds with little protection from the heat, says McGregorImage: Australian Government

There are increasing reports of physical and sexual abuse of minors by staff in the facility that must be investigated immediately by an independent body. There are 1,169 asylum seekers detained on Nauru and more in the community. By sending another 157 asylum seekers, including 50 children, to Nauru, the Australian government is likely to be stretching an already flawed and under-resourced facility to the breaking point.

What happens if the asylum-seekers are found to be refugees?

Processing of asylum claims on Nauru has been extremely slow. Since the first of the current asylum seeker population was sent to the island in August 2013, the vast majority of asylum seekers have not had their refugee status assessed.

Those that have been processed and found to be refugees have been temporarily settled on Nauru for up to five years until the Australian government can establish right of access for them in a third country. Nauru is a small Pacific island nation with a population of 10,000 people and limited resources. So far, the Australian government has been pursuing a resettlement deal with Cambodia, a country which Amnesty International considers to be unsuited to protecting and supporting the complex needs of refugees.

All of this is unnecessary. Instead of punishing innocent people in a cruel and futile attempt to deter others, the Australian government could pursue humane alternatives for protecting the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in cooperation with other countries in the region.

What will happen if they are not found to be refugees?

Asylum seekers who have their claims for refugee status fully assessed and are found not to be refugees can be returned voluntarily or otherwise to their country of origin or another country where they have right of entry. However, it is the responsibility of all governments to ensure that they do not return people to a country where - regardless of their refugee status - their lives may be at risk. The Australian government has repeatedly ignored this responsibility in the past, sending back dozens of Sri Lankan asylum seekers without properly assessing their refugee claims.

There is increasing evidence from international human rights organizations that the Sri Lankan authorities persecute returned asylum seekers, including imprisonment and the use of torture. This evidence needs to be fully considered by any government considering the return of failed asylum seekers to Sri Lanka.

Graeme McGregor is Refugee Campaign Coordinator for Amnesty International Australia.