The report, handed down by the Senate Standing Committees on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on its inquiry into the Regional Processing Centres (RPCs) on Manus Island and Nauru late last week, assessed Australia’s offshore detention regime.
The legal body labelled the report as damning and said it reflected the strong need for Manus Island and Nauru RPCs to be closed and bring everyone sent there by the Commonwealth government back to Australia.
“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,” said ALA spokesperson and barrister Greg Barns (pictured).
“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.”
Mr Barns responded to a section in the report which found that “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,” Mr Barns said.
“It seems like the Department of Immigration and Border Protection is alone in believing that offshore detention remains a viable option.”
In addition, Mr Barns responded to the committee, which said in the report that it 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”.
“The lack of information available has been a constant complaint of the ALA,” Mr Barns said.
“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.”
Mr Barns applauded the committee for also recommending that the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act) be reformed.
He noted that immigration detention facilities are Commonwealth workplaces, both onshore and offshore. As such, under the WHS Act, Comcare is the Commonwealth agency with oversight of health and safety of refugees, asylum seekers and workers in those facilities, he said.
“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,” Mr Barns added.
“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.”
In conclusion, Mr Barns said that based on the committee’s report, 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,” he said.
“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 closing offshore detention, as well as increasing our refugee intake, as the committee recommends.”
Mr Barn's comments come after the Supreme Court of Victoria announced that the upcoming class action proceedings, on behalf of detainees in the Manus Island detention centre, will be live streamed to the public.