Australia blames refugee advocates for self-harm incidents

As incidents of refugees self-harming rise on Nauru, Australia accuses refugee advocates of ‘encouraging’ asylum seekers held in remote camps.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Protesters from the Refugee Action Coalition hold placards during a demonstration outside the offices of the Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection in Sydney, Australia, on April 29, 2016.

Australia accused refugee advocates on Tuesday of "encouraging" asylum seekers held in remote camps  self-harm incidents have been rising at an Australian detention camp on the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru.

Australian authorities said that an unidentified 21-year-old Somali woman was in a critical condition after she set herself alight on Nauru on Monday, the second such incident in a week.

A 23-year-old Iranian man also set himself on fire last week in protest against his treatment on Nauru and later died.

Participants arrange candles next to the portriat of an Iranian refugee, who died after setting himself on fire, in Sydney on April 30, 2016. (AFP)

Australia's Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton on Tuesday acknowledged there had been a rise in cases of self-harm in the camps but accused refugee advocates of giving the asylum seekers false hope they would one day be settled in Australia.

"It is of grave concern that this person would resort to such an extreme act of self-harm. I have previously expressed my frustration and anger frankly at advocates and others who are in contact with those in regional processing centres and who are encouraging some of these people to behave in a certain way, believing that pressure exerted on the Australian Government will see a change in our policy in relation to our border protection measures," Dutton told reporters at a news conference in Canberra.

Officials said that the Somali woman was transferred to Australia for treatment.

"The lady has been transferred from Nauru and has arrived in Australia and she remains in a very serious critical condition and all efforts of course are being made to meet her medical needs," Dutton said.

"The recent behaviors in Nauru are not protests against living conditions. They aren't protests against health care, they aren't protests against the lack of financial support," he added.

Under Australia's controversial immigration policy, asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat are intercepted and turned back to their country of departure or sent for processing to remote Pacific island camps such as Nauru, which holds about 500 people, or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

Iranian asylum seekers who were caught in Indonesian waters while sailing to Australia sit on a boat at Benoa port in Bali, Indonesia on May 12, 2013. (AP)

Under the law asylum seekers can never resettle in Australia, even if they are found to be refugees. Australia's conservative government has defended the policy as stopping deaths at sea.

"And no action, advocates or those in regional processing countries take, will cause the government to deviate from its course. We are not going to allow people to drown at sea again. 1200 people drowned at sea last time Australia lost control of its borders," he said.

Last week, Papua New Guinea's government ordered the Manus Island camp, which holds about 850 people, to be closed after the country's Supreme Court ruled that the facility is illegal.

However, the Australian government said that there would be no change to the policy, which has been followed by successive governments.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said she believed the Somali woman had been been driven to despair.

"She's now fighting for her life back in Australia and this is a policy in freefall. It is a policy that is hurting people, breaking people, and let's make no mistake about it, that is exactly what it is designed to do," Sarah said.

UN renews its criticism of policy

The United Nations has renewed its criticism of Australia’s harsh immigration policy as refugee advocates were accused of causing incidents of self-harm in remote camps.

The peak UN body for refugees said that such incidents in the camps, which hold asylum seekers fleeing violence in the Middle East, Afghanistan and South Asia, were the result of Australia’s tough offshore detention policies.

"These people have already been through a great deal, many have fled war and persecution, some have already suffered trauma," the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Australia said in a statement.

"The consensus among medical experts is that conditions of detention and offshore processing do immense damage to physical and mental health," it said.

Asylum seekers look through a fence at the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea on March 21, 2014. (Reuters)

The harsh conditions and reports of systemic child abuse at the camps have drawn wide criticism inside and outside Australia and have become a major headache for Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during his campaign for the July national elections.

An Australian broadcaster reported later on Tuesday that a boat believed to be carrying asylum seekers from Sri Lanka was intercepted near the remote Australian Indian Ocean territory of the Cocos Islands.

A spokeswoman for Dutton's office refused to confirm or deny such a vessel had been intercepted. However, if confirmed to be carrying asylum seekers, it would be the first such vessel to have arrived in Australian territory in almost two years.

The number of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia is small compared with those arriving in Europe, but border security has long been a major political issue and will almost certainly feature prominently again in elections likely to be held in July.

TRTWorld and agencies