NEW YORK – There will be no surprise outcomes at the United Nations Refugee Summit, said Audrey Gaughran, director of Global Issues at Amnesty International (A.I.), before the meeting had even begun.
Notwithstanding the summit being the first such high-level meeting to address the large-scale movement of people, many advocacy groups had already predicted an underwhelming performance by the U.N. and its member states at the much-anticipated meeting in New York.
But Gaughran and others in her position have an onerous task. Despite mixed migration influxes reaching European shores at a previously unheard-of rate, convincing wealthier countries that often do not bear the burden of geography – a factor that has incidentally contributed to their historic affluence – to take in sizable numbers of refugees is not easy. Out of the 22,504 people targeted in an E.U. program agreed in July 2015, a mere 8,268 have been resettled,according to experts writing for Refugees Deeply.
Advocacy for resettlement becomes an even more exacting challenge when the argument of “the crisis reaching the doorstep” of faraway countries is used to drum up support for deterrence policies that in effect create a military-industrial complex to keep “illegal” migration at bay.
Amid political abstention from some of the best-resourced states, A.I. recently launched the I Welcome campaign, which sends “a powerful message to politicians worldwide to do the right thing and agree a plan to share responsibility for refugees – now.”
Additionally, its lead researchers, such as Anna Neistat, are launching groundbreaking investigations to rally support for radical policy changes in individual countries. Their most recent report on the treatment of refugees at Nauru Island, where the Australian government has set up an offshore detention center, is a case in point. Following the report, more than 2,000 documents leaked by center officials corroborated A.I.’s findings, prompting calls from the Australian public to shut the premises permanently.
Refugees Deeply met Audrey Gaughran and Anna Neistat to discuss in-depth their respective goals at the UNGA.
Part One: Audrey Gaughran on the need for accelerated resettlement
Refugees Deeply: It is a tough climate in which to be advocating progressive measures to tackle migration flows. What is the most pressing task at hand, in your view?
Audrey Gaughran: Among the 21 million refugees in the world, a very large number are in a very small number of countries – you have 1 million in Lebanon, close to 1 million in Jordan. Many are in acute, distressing situations, so we have been calling for resettlement of all the vulnerable refugees, which is what UNHCR obviously pushes for but gets nowhere near in terms of countries offering resettlement places. But we also called for a mechanism to deal with very large inflows. So when a country like Lebanon gets a huge flow of refugees it should be able to ask for help and support so those people can then be moved to other countries that are not receiving such large numbers. With the U.N. negotiations, it started off with a sense that we could get 10 percent of refugees resettled. But then states progressively pulled backwards to the point where the outcome document is in our view representative of an abject failure of states and of the U.N. to do anything meaningful about the refugee crisis. So we continue to campaign for resettlement, but we are targeting individual states.
Refugees Deeply: How can we widen the scope so we’re not just talking about a European crisis, but a global crisis?
Gaughran: We have been trying to emphasize the global nature of the crisis and highlighting issues in Asia, in Kenya, large populations of refugees in Ethiopia, the truly horrific situation for refugees and migrants in Libya who are trying to get to Europe. In terms of increasing the numbers, at the moment only about 30 countries provide any kind of regular resettlement or humanitarian-type admission – and there are more than 190 countries in the world. So one of the things we want to do is just drive up the number of countries who could offer resettlement: to get countries that don’t at the moment offer it to start doing it, and do it on an annual basis. With the countries that do offer resettlement, we want to get them to increase the numbers.
Refugees Deeply: How can resettlement be expedited?
Gaughran: We’ve put forward some criteria that countries could use to take in their fair share. For example, if you look at GNP, national wealth, population size and unemployment rates, and you took the population of vulnerable refugees in the world and then divided them up based on those criteria, this ratio would give states a share of refugees that they could reasonably integrate into their country.
Part Two: Abuse of Refugees in Australia’s offshore detention system
Refugees Deeply: What were your main findings in terms of Australia’s obligations under international humanitarian law that are breached at Nauru?
Anna Neistat: It’s important to emphasize that what we found is systematic abuse. We’re not talking about separate, individual incidents. Despite government denial, we know very well it is the system that has been set up by Australia, that Australia is paying approximately U.S.$312 million a year to contractors who run this operation in Nauru. We also know the Australian immigration authorities make all of the decisions related to refugees and asylum seekers. In terms of the violations, the most appalling one is the lack of medical assistance, which leads to rapidly deteriorating physical and mental health problems among refugees and asylum seekers.
The mental health situation is just appalling. Most of the people I spoke to talked about either having attempting suicide or thinking about this. Attempted suicides and self-harm are virtually daily occurrences on the island and this is happening against the background of overall depression and stress that adults as well as children are experiencing. There are psychologists who work there and the main medical contractor whom Australia employs, but from what we were able to establish the care that they provide is insufficient. People are being prescribed heaps of medications, pills that are very strong antipsychotic and antidepressants, sedative medication. People were saying that each couple of months they’re being prescribed new drugs and these drugs simply don’t work. There are some extreme cases that we documented – several women and men who have been held in a psychiatric ward in one of the camps because they attempted suicide and because their state of mental health does not allow them to function in society. People with kidney problems, various infections, gynecological, urological problems have not received any proper medical care either.
Refugees Deeply: In terms of mandatory detention of children, Australia is the only country with an explicit policy of detaining minors. How are they able to continue doing this without repercussions?
Neistat: What we’re seeing on Nauru, technically, is not detention. Of course, to all intents and purposes it is, but [the center] used to be a detention facility until very recently. The camp where people were held, including children, was run like a prison with meals given at certain times, searches conducted in tents, limited showers etc. Children were held there along with adults and I spoke with many people who described how traumatizing this experience was for underage refugees. Right now, there are still about 400 people who live in two camps on the island – one for single men and another for families and single women. While technically they’re not detained, it makes no big difference given that the whole island is essentially one big open-air prison. The island is very small, about 21 square kilometers [8 square miles]. People cannot go anywhere off the island. Even those who have been recognized as refugees (about 70 percent of them), even those who received travel documents cannot leave because their nationality is stated as “refugee.” On the few occasions when people received indications from countries like Canada that they might be willing to receive them, Australian immigration authorities prevented them from leaving. This is something that contributes to the mental trauma.
Refugees Deeply: Two aspects of Australia’s refugee policies stand out. One is “offshoring” their detention and the second is outsourcing the task to security companies. Are these two things legal?
Neistat: There is no question that this process is illegal: it goes against the U.N. refugee convention and basic humanitarian principles. The general principle is that a state cannot contract its human rights obligations away. Right now, Australia does not only deny its responsibility for anything happening in Nauru but actually suggests all the responsibility remains with the Nauru government, which I think is both cynical and simply not true. It is not technically illegal for a government to contract a company to, for example, run a detention facility, but the government is still fully responsible for what is happening in the facility, whether inside the country or outside.
Refugees Deeply: It is a curious situation with security companies because lately there have been issues, for example in Greece, where some with poor records have been hired. How does one ascertain if a company is qualified?
Neistat: In Australia, the provider is Wilson Security, a subcontractor of Broadspectrum, the main contractor operating the Nauru detention center. I do not have information yet about their record. What I know is that there have been various incidents involving their personnel on the islands that have not been properly investigated. You are absolutely right that before hiring a company, their record should be checked and there should be very clear rules on their operation. We are looking into this aspect.
Refugees Deeply: What are your next steps? How do you intend to exert more pressure on the Australian government to change its methods?
Neistat: There are two main avenues that we are going to pursue. One, of course, is mobilizing the Australian public and this is something A.I. is quite well placed to do. We have massive membership in Australia and now with this new information, we have been mobilizing them. Sooner or later the Australian public will understand that the goal in this case cannot possibly justify the means and that essentially their tax money is being spent on building this system of abuse and impunity, surrounded by total secrecy.
At the same time, our report is getting massive exposure internationally. We hope to enlist [the] public around the world, but also other governments, in addressing this issue.
Quite a few European governments are looking at Australia’s experience and possibly thinking of mimicking it. At the U.N. Refugee Summit, we are encouraging governments to address the issue with Australia as their counterpart through the Human Rights Council, for example.