The HRAS Interview with Graeme McGregor of Amnesty International Australia
Men, Women and Children in Offshore Detention
Graeme McGregor joined Amnesty International Australia in 2013 as the Refugee Campaign Coordinator. After studying Human Rights and International Politics at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, he has spent 10 years working voluntarily and professionally for Amnesty International and other organisations.
HRAS speaks to Graeme about Australia’s offshore detention centres:
HRAS: What is Amnesty International’s position on Australasia’s refugee situation?
Amnesty International has been campaigning on refugee rights issues in Australia and the South East Asian region for around 20 years. Globally, all of Amnesty’s work is based on human rights law, international and domestic, and we derive our position from that – interpreting it in an honest way and based on its intent.
The flow of people by boat to Australia, using the services of people smugglers or being exploited by people smugglers, is a problem. It is not something that anyone wants to see happening, and ideally it wouldn’t be happening.
We continue to advocate very strongly for refugees and asylum seekers from South East Asia to be offered real routes to safety, effective routes that don’t leave them stranded in countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia or Bangladesh for years on end – with no access to schooling for their children, no health care and only able to work illegal or dangerous jobs.
From there, they have very few options but to travel to Australia by boat. A great deal of our work is focused on trying to improve conditions in South East Asia for refugees and asylum seekers to reduce that pressure.
HRAS: What should Australia be doing?
As long as these people are trying to come to Australia by boat, they have the right to be safe. They have the right to have their claims heard. So they should be taken in by the Australian authorities and their refugee claims should be processed fairly and efficiently. They should be free from detention if at all possible and, if found to be genuine refugees, they should be settled in Australia.
HRAS: How does Australia’s treatment of detainees affect the Rohingya people?
There are many thousands of Rohingya refugees living across South East Asia. They are living on the fringe of society, below the radar, in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. It is surprising how few Rohingya make the onward journey to Australia, but it seems that the main reason is that boat journeys are expensive. The Rohingya people generally don’t have much money.
Currently, there are a number of Rohingya men in detention, and they are in a particularly difficult position. They are a stateless people, and if their refugee claims are not recognized, they cannot be returned to Burma, where they come from. The only outcome for them is to be placed in indefinite detention.
HRAS: What is the focus of your current campaign?
For the last six months, we have been focused on the rights of refugee children in detention, particularly those in detention offshore. Australia has an agreement with the small Pacific island state of Nauru and with Papua New Guinea (PNG) for those countries to host Australian detention centres, and they currently hold around 2,000 asylum seekers.
People, including children, have been held there for up to two years now. It’s very hard to get data, but the latest statistics show there are 88 children being detained on Nauru.
HRAS: What are conditions like on Nauru?
Conditions are extremely harsh and wildly inappropriate for anyone, but particularly for young children. There are numerous and increasingly severe allegation of physical and sexual abuse of women and children in the detention centre, and we are extremely concerned that the government is not taking its obligations to protect these people seriously.
The detention centres are extremely secretive. The Australian and Nauru governments are extremely secretive and have denied us access three times now.
It is extremely unusual for Amnesty International to be denied access to a detention facility. Normally, the government would have nothing to hide. If anything, they’d want to show off how humane and appropriate the conditions are to protect themselves against criticism.
We will continue to seek access, and in the meantime, we’ll raise awareness of what evidence we do have of abuse.
HRAS: What problems do women and children currently face on Nauru?
There is increasing information reaching the public about conditions and treatment inside the centre because of the bravery of staff there who are willing to speak out when they witness abuse. The most severe, recently, are that women and children on Nauru are experiencing frequent physical and sexual assault or harassment. In many cases, the allegations claim that the sexual assault is being committed by guards, and that there is a great deal of sexual intimidation by male security staff.
Male staff are tasked with supervising the female shower facilities, and there are allegations that they will pressure women to show them their naked body in order to get more time in the shower. Normally, the women are only allowed 1-2 minutes shower time.
There are also allegations of rape being committed by guards, or guards accepting sexual favours in return for drugs. In almost every country in the world, this is widely considered sexual exploitation, which is part of the spectrum of violence against women and children.
HRAS: Are the authorities taking action?
Unfortunately, all the evidence suggests that the authorities are not properly investigating these crimes, and the victims are not being given any kind of appropriate mental health or legal support.
HRAS: What did you find when you went to Manus Island detention centre?
I went to Manus Island back in November of 2013 – not long after the current government policy of detainees at Manus Island and Nauru never being allowed to reach Australia was initiated. Prior to that, they were processed offshore but eventually came to Australia.
I spent a week on Manus Island with an Amnesty International team, interviewing newly arrived asylum seekers, inspecting conditions and speaking to staff. We came to the conclusion, after seeking the horrific conditions and how little information people had about their refugee status determination, that in fact the detention centre didn’t exist to safely settle people anywhere. It existed to put such psychological and physical pressure on people that they would choose to return to their country of origin regardless of whether or not they had a refugee claim.
HRAS: What was the island itself like?
PNG is fairly remote, but Manus Island is extremely remote, located far of the coast. The island itself is very small and covered in tropical jungle. The local people are very kind, but they live without infrastructure and in a high level of poverty.
The centre itself is on a largely disused army base, heavy guarded with high fences. It looks very much like a POW or concentration camp. There are very severe security procedures going in and out.
HRAS: What was the accommodation like for the detainees?
Manus Island only holds male detainees. They are kept in accommodation compounds with different types of facilities ranging from four men in a converted shipping container to large pre-fab buildings that sleep up to 60 men in a room. The worst we saw was a former World War II accommodation hanger – a low building with a curved tin roof. There was very little light inside, and in a very small space it slept 120 men on bunk beds that were crammed so close together that there was only a few inches between each bunk.
There was no ventilation, no fans and we were told by the men inside that when it rains, the shelter floods. The smell was over-powering, because we are talking about a tropical island where temperatures easily reach 35-40 degrees Celcius and the humidity is 80-90 percent. The men have very little access to laundry facilities, and it is very hard for them to keep clean.
HRAS: What were the medical facilities like?
The medical facilities were extremely poor and not equipped to meet the mental and physical health needs of the men, remembering that many of these refugees have been through extremely traumatic experiences. They’ve lost family and loved ones; they’ve left everything behind.
The services available to them could do nothing to help them get better. All that could be hoped was to keep at bay perhaps the worst effects of their mental health issues, and of course, the environment itself did nothing to help their mental health, in many cases making it worse.
HRAS: What does Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers mean for children?
The current policies are particularly harsh on children, and it is children that are going to suffer the long-term damage. Even when these policies are one day done away with and Australia is ashamed of how it behaved, those children are still going to be feeling the impact of what we have done to them.
There is a lot of government rhetoric, and the issue has cynically focused on security threats that don’t really exist. Refugees are the people fleeing violence, they are not the people causing, it as a rule, and very clearly that security threat does not apply to children. These children are no threat, their parents are no threat, and there is absolutely no justification for keeping children in such abusive, dangerous conditions.
Our hope is that, in the same way that previous governments have, today’s government will come to its senses.