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Australia signs deal with Nauru to keep asylum seeker detention centre open indefinitely

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

Australia will continue its policy of offshore processing of asylum seekers indefinitely, with the home affairs minister signing a new agreement with Nauru to maintain “an enduring form” of offshore processing on the island state.

Since 2012 – in the second iteration of the policy – all asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat seeking protection have faced mandatory indefinite detention and processing offshore.

There are currently about 108 people held by Australia on Nauru as part of its offshore processing regime. Most have been there more than eight years. About 125 people are still held in Papua New Guinea. No one has been sent offshore since 2014.

Related: Three members of Biloela family granted year-long visas but they’ll have to remain in Perth

However, Nauru is Australia’s only remaining offshore detention centre.

PNG’s Manus Island centre was forced to shut down after it was found to be unconstitutional by the PNG supreme court in 2016. Australia was forced to compensate those who had been illegally detained there, and they were forcibly moved out, mostly to Port Moresby.

But the Nauru detention facility will remain indefinitely.

In a statement on Friday, home affairs minister Karen Andrews said a new memorandum of understanding with Nauru was a “significant step forwards” for both countries.

“Australia’s strong and successful border protection policies under Operation Sovereign Borders remain and there is zero chance of settlement in Australia for anyone who arrives illegally by boat,” she said.

“Anyone who attempts an illegal maritime journey to Australia will be turned back, or taken to Nauru for processing. They will never settle in Australia.”

Nauru president, Lionel Aingimea, said the new agreement created an “enduring form” of offshore processing.

“This takes the regional processing to a new milestone.

“It is enduring in nature, as such the mechanisms are ready to deal with illegal migrants immediately upon their arrival in Nauru from Australia.”

Australia’s offshore processing policy and practices have been consistently criticised by the United Nations, human rights groups, and by refugees themselves.

The UN has said Australia’s system violates the convention against torture and the international criminal court’s prosecutor said indefinite detention offshore was “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” and unlawful under international law.

At least 12 people have died in the camps, including being murdered by guards, through medical neglect and by suicide. Psychiatrists sent to work in the camps have described the conditions as “inherently toxic” and akin to “torture”.

In 2016, the Nauru files, published by the Guardian, exposed the Nauru detention centre’s own internal reports of systemic violence, rape, sexual abuse, self-harm and child abuse in offshore detention.

The decision to extend offshore processing indefinitely has been met with opprobrium from those who were detained there, and refugee advocates who say it is deliberately damaging to those held.

Myo Win, a human rights activist and Rohingyan refugee from Myanmar, who was formerly detained on Nauru and released in March 2021, said those who remain held within Australia’s regime on Nauru “are just so tired, separated from family, having politics played with their lives, it just makes me so upset”.

“I am out now and I still cannot live my life on a bridging visa and in lockdown, but it is 10 times better than Nauru. They should not be extending anything, they should be stopping offshore processing now. I am really worried about everyone on Nauru right now, they need to be released.”

Jana Favero from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said the new memorandum of understanding only extended a “failed system”.

“An ‘enduring regional processing capability’ in Nauru means: enduring suffering, enduring family separation, enduring uncertainty, enduring harm and Australia’s enduring shame.

“The Morrison government must give the men, women and children impacted by the brutality of offshore processing a safe and permanent home. Prolonging the failure of offshore processing on Nauru and PNG is not only wrong and inhumane but dangerous.”

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