News that U.S. officials have been fingerprinting refugees on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island ahead of their possible resettlement in the United States is a hopeful signal to the hundreds of men, women and children who stand to benefit. Under a U.S.-Australian agreement negotiated by the Obama administration, the U.S. is planning to resettle to its territory up to 1,250 refugees currently held in offshore detention centers on the Pacific Island nation of Nauru and Manus Island. In exchange, Australia will resettle Central American refugees. In a knee-jerk unilateralism characteristic of his first months in office, President Donald Trump initially tweeted that the U.S.-Australia arrangement was a “dumb deal,” threatening to cancel it. Since then, however, relations between Australia and the U.S. have warmed considerably. But such renewed cooperation must be coupled with a vocal condemnation of Australian refugee policies which, as we argued in a submission to the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, may amount to crimes against humanity.

Under these policies, implemented with the generouslyrewarded cooperation of Nauru and Papua New Guinea, Australia detains those seeking refuge under extremely harsh conditions. Australia takes pride in these “innovative” border enforcement policies. Australia’s Treasurer Scott Morrison described his country’s policies as the “envy of the world,” even suggesting that Trump’s travel ban Executive Order shows that the “world is catching up” to Australia. Allowing such a program to go unopposed risks, in the long run, further incentivizing refugee-offshoring policies like Australia’s. These are some of the most abusive and perverse refugee policies that any country has adopted. An agreement with the United States must not end up becoming a tacit endorsement of Australia’s refugee policies.

Cooperative “Deterrence”

In recent years, Australia has become one of the most sophisticated actors when it comes to passing the buck on human rights abuses. The idea is simple and is generally based on the model the U.S. developed back in the 1980s and 1990s in its treatment of migrants in Guantánamo Bay. To deter refugees from trying to reach Australia by sea, Australian authorities subject them to indefinite and harsh detention. To avoid the scrutiny of its courts, they do so beyond Australian territory, in Pacific Island nations in desperate need of financial support. To ensure that this help is provided efficiently and to add a further layer of distance, private corporations have been contracted to “process” refugees for profit. International monitors have documented the rampant human rights abuses occurring in these detention centers. They have done so despite draconian measures imposed by Nauru, Papua New Guinea, and Australia, to limit journalists’ and human rights monitors’ access to the refugees and to the detention centers. These measures have included Australian legislation that criminalizes any “unauthorized disclosure” about conditions in the detention centers. 

This meticulously designed system deliberately inflicts harsh treatment on vulnerable refugee populations. New documents released earlier this month reveal how refugees are consciously encouraged to accept resettlement or abandon their refugee claims in return for improved living conditions. Their circumstances have led to high rates of self-harm among those held on these islands. Leaked documents reveal that self-harm or suicide incidents are a matter of daily occurrence, reaching “epidemic levels,” according to medical experts, with adults and children alike swallowing bleach, razor blades and nails, and self-immolating as a result of the anguish of their detention. One man we spoke with described attempting to kill himself on seven different occasions. Sexual abuse is rampant, and there is also evidence of systemic violence resulting from the cramped conditions and lack of oversight.

This subject has drawn significant international condemnation. In recent months, the horrific conditions on these camps have been covered by the Guardian and the New York Times. An investigation by leading rights groups – forced to go undercover because the Australian government and its client nations have prevented access – have resulted in damning findings about the conditions on Nauru.

Australia has made no secret of its intent to deter. Under the logic articulated by the highest officials in Australia, the goal is to send a message to would-be refugees and asylum seekers: don’t bother coming to Australia. The official government poster for “Operation Sovereign Borders” depicts a brutal, choppy sea, stormy conditions, and a single, unstable vessel riding a whitecap. Writ large across the sky, in red lettering, is the phrase: “NO WAY: you will not make Australia home.”

The Need for Accountability

Crafting detention conditions around desired outcomes without meeting basic human rights standards is a perverse, but unfortunately not uncommon, feature of refugee detention. But when the pain and suffering of some is intentionally used to send messages to others, it can also be criminal. In February of this year, along with fifteen leading international criminal and refugee law scholars, we submitted a communication to the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court calling on her to investigate possible crimes against humanity committed by Australian officials, and their corporate partners, at the very same detention centers that U.S. officials are reportedly visiting. Specifically, we argue that there is a reasonable basis to believe that public officials and corporate actors may have committed, and continue to commit, the crimes against humanity of unlawful imprisonment, torture, deportation, persecution and other inhumane acts.

Our communication to the Office of the Prosecutor highlighted that Australia and its contracted corporations intentionally utilize inhumane treatment as a tool to intimidate and deter future vulnerable migrants.

Even if the 1,250 individuals currently on Manus Island and Nauru are resettled in the U.S., this will not get rid of the broader blight on our international refugee system engendered by the Australian case. While the resettlement arrangement resolves some of the most pressing humanitarian concerns, deeper accountability is needed. Otherwise, we risk normalizing policies that are already finding purchase elsewhere, in Europe and North Africa. Western democracies cannot rely on a system of offshoring responsibility to smaller, poorer states while advertising human suffering in the hope that desperate individuals fleeing war will be dissuaded from making the harrowing journey. To do so, one would need to create conditions worse than the horrors refugees are fleeing. These are precisely the type of systematic and deliberate actions that the international criminal system was designed to deter.

Regardless of what happens with the U.S.-Australia deal, the international community should resoundingly condemn what has been billed as the “Australian model,” a model which originated in U.S. migration policies in the Caribbean a couple of decades ago, and which is unfortunately gaining a foothold elsewhere. Deliberately creating restrictive and harsh detention conditions in order to deter future migration flows, as Australia has explicitly done, is an affront to the premise that refugees deserve protection.

Image: Getty