Lawyers welcome damning report from offshore detention inquiry

21st Apr 2017

A Senate Report stating that there is an “unacceptable lack of accountability and transparency” and a “culture of secrecy” on Nauru and Manus Island was released today. It is clear the only way forward is to close Manus Island and Nauru RPCs and bring everyone sent there by the Commonwealth government back to Australia, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said today.

The reported handed down by the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on its inquiry into the Regional Processing Centres (RPCs) on Manus Island and Nauru today is damning in its assessment of Australia’s offshore detention regime, said Greg Barns, barrister and ALA spokesperson on immigration detention.

“The Department can no longer pretend that it is the governments of Nauru and PNG that are responsible for the asylum seekers and refugees sent by Australia to these countries. This report is clear in finding that the Department owes all refugees and asylum seekers living in Nauru and PNG a duty of care. It rejects absolutely the Department’s claim that any other entity bears ultimate responsibility,” said Mr Barns.

According to the report, “refugees and asylum seekers in RPCs are living in an unsafe environment. The causal nexus between this unsafe living environment … and corresponding widespread mental health problems and self-harm, is indisputable”.

“The Committee is right in finding that the risks faced by asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru is unacceptable,” said Mr Barns. “It seems like the Department of Immigration and Border Protection is alone in believing that offshore detention remains a viable option.”

The Committee was frustrated in its attempts to access information, expressing disappointment at the standard of assistance provided by the Department. It is crucial that the Department facilitate “external and independent scrutiny of policies and procedures,” according to the report.

“The lack of information available has been a constant complaint of the ALA. This problem is particularly severe in relation to Manus Island, which has not seen the same level of scrutiny or leaked information. It is heartening to see the Committee reflect these concerns,” said Mr Barns.

Immigration detention facilities are Commonwealth workplaces, both onshore and offshore. As such, under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act), Comcare is the Commonwealth agency with oversight of health and safety of refugees, asylum seekers and workers in those facilities. The Report clearly recommends that the WHS Act should be reformed.

“The role of Comcare in offshore detention was examined at length by the Committee. The ALA has been arguing for years that Comcare must be provided with the tools that it needs to ensure that these Commonwealth workplaces comply with Australian law,” said Mr Barns.

“Reform of the WHS Act is essential to ensuring that people who have been forced to live on these islands by the Australian government are safe. The ALA has made clear recommendations for legislative change to better reflect the unique risks faced in offshore detention,” said Mr Barns.

“The ALA is also pleased to see that the Committee adopted the recommendation, made by us and others, that an ‘independent children’s advocate with both the jurisdiction and authority to advocate for the rights of children being held’ on Nauru be established,” said Mr Barns.

“It is clear from the Committee’s report that offshore detention must end now. The Department has been made aware time and again of the serious risks that exist in Nauru and Manus Island and has failed to improve the situation.

“We all know that the global refugee crisis is not going to be resolved any time soon. It is time for Australia to act as a responsible global citizen, by both properly caring for refugees and asylum seekers and ending offshore detention, as well as increasing our refugee intake, as the Committee recommends,” said Mr Barns.

You can find the Committee’s Report here, our submissions to it here and here, and our report, Untold Damage, discussing the application of the WHS Act to offshore detention, here.

The Australian Lawyers Alliance appeared before the inquiry on 15 November 2016. The transcript of that hearing can be found here.

Tags: Human rights Migration law Asylum seekers and refugees Greg Barns