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13 Things Americans Need To Know About Australia's Plan To Detain 37 Babies Offshore

What is the Nauru Regional Processing Center, and why have some people been living there for almost a decade?

Posted on February 3, 2016, at 11:12 p.m. ET

1. Where is the Nauru Regional Processing Center?

Flickr: diacimages

There are 17 Australian detention centers. Fourteen of those centers are on Australian soil. But there are three offshore detention centers run by the Australian government. One of those is a processing center in the Republic of Nauru, an island country in the Pacific. If you get through Australian borders without a visa, you can be held in a detention center in Australia or resettled at an offshore processing center like Nauru. The others are at Manus, Papua New Guinea; and on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.

Nauru and Manus were meant to house asylum-seekers temporarily, but there are some people who have been living there for years.

2. How long has this been going on?

Alex Ellinghausen / AAPIMAGE

The Migration Reform Act 1992 established mandatory detention for asylum-seekers — whom Australia refers to as "unlawful arrivals." In 2001, Australian Prime Minister John Howard came up with the "Pacific Solution," a three-point program that made a bunch of islands no longer part of Australian territory, gave the Australian Defence Force the ability to intercept boats of "unlawful arrivals," and then established the Nauru, Manus, and Christmas Island offshore processing centers.

Nauru was shut down in 2008 by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. But it was reopened in 2012 by Prime Minister Julia Gillard after an increase in boats of asylum-seekers trying to get to Australia.

3. Can you be sent anywhere else after a detention center?

Omar Havana / Getty Images

Nauru, Manus, and Christmas Island are supposed to be processing facilities. They were originally set up to assess an asylum-seeker's refugee status. Over the last decade, they've evolved into detention centers, but the camps are meant to be temporary.

In April, the Australian government sent detainees at Nauru to Cambodia. Australia made a resettlement deal with the Cambodian government, one that the UN called “inappropriate, immoral and likely illegal." The detainees were even given factsheets about Cambodia that described the country as "a safe country, where police maintain law and order.”

4. What kind of people work at these offshore detention centers?

Facebook / Via

The guards are a mix of vetted Australian citizens and completely unvetted Nauruian citizens. There are multiple reports of local guards using unreasonable force.

Last spring, eight Australian guards were suspended for posing in a photograph taken at an anti-Muslim "Reclaim Australia" rally.

Then in September, a Fairfax Media investigation discovered that a Nauru guard framed an asylum-seeker for assault, perjured himself in court, and then confessed to the whole thing in a secret recording.

5. What do we know about what goes on there?

Parliament of Australia

It's difficult for journalists and human rights workers to get into Australia's detention centers. Much of what we know comes from people who were detained there and managed to leave.

In August, a former employee for Wilson Security, one of the private firms supplying guards for Australia's detention centers, testified before an Australian Senate committee. The whistleblower, Jon Nichols, alleged guards waterboarded detainees. Nichols also said Wilson Security changed its staff members’ phones from iPhones to old Nokias in 2014 so they couldn’t take pictures or videos.

Former employees and medical staff who visit the detention centers are forced to sign nondisclosure agreements forbidding them from describing the camps. Doctors who speak about what they've seen at the camps could face jail time.

6. What are the conditions like?

Guardian Australia / Via

Over the years, there have been multiple reports of daily physical abuse for the detainees. There have been hunger strikes, widespread self-harm, and reports of people sewing their lips shut. A former nurse in 2013 described the Nauru detention center as a concentration camp. The Australian Human Rights Commission describes the living conditions at Nauru as "very hot and cramped conditions in vinyl tents, with no privacy or air-conditioning."

There have also been multiple reports of sexual assault and attempted suicide. Last spring, an independent review by a former integrity commissioner described a horrific culture at Nauru of sexual violence, the sexual assault of minors, and guards trading marijuana for sexual favors from female detainees.

One girl recently told the ABC that after 12 months of daily taunts and physical abuse from guards, she attempted to kill herself.

Two refugees who were allegedly raped at Nauru are currently being treated in Australia.

7. Are children there?

Supplied to the ABC / Via

Currently, there are 174 children in closed Australian detention facilities: 104 children in Australia, 70 children at Nauru. There are another 331 children in open community detention facilities in Australia.

The first refugee baby was born at Nauru in September. Her name is Nourkayas, and her birth ignited concerns from refugee advocates about detainees' access to health services.

8. How are the children affected by being detained?

The effects are not good. The Australian Human Rights Commission examined children at Wickham Point detention facility — one of the facilities on Australian soil — and found that 95% of them had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Numerous disturbing drawings from children at offshore detentions have made their way out of the camps, including the drawing above. Most of the detained children's artwork shows them begging for help, trapped behind bars.

9. How are these offshore camps legal?

Flickr: diacimages

A challenge to the Australian government's policy of sending asylum-seekers arriving by boat to offshore detention centers was heard this week. But the high court ruled that the Australian government acted lawfully in setting up its offshore detention centers. Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton told the ABC Wednesday night that Australia’s immigration policies were designed to prevent people-smuggling and to save lives at sea.

Dutton has also indicated that if the offshore detention facilities are ruled as lawful, he intends to round up and deport 267 asylum-seekers currently living in Australia, 54 of whom are children, and 37 of whom are babies who were born on Australian soil to asylum-seeking mothers. Current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Dutton now have the ability to deport all 267 people at any time.

10. Doesn't that mean that Australia is possibly sending victims back to their rapists?

Supplied to ABC / Via

Yes, two refugees who were sent to Australia after allegedly being raped at Nauru are currently facing the possibility of being sent back.

A 23-year-old Somali refugee named Abyan was allegedly raped at Nauru and was flown to Australia in October to have an abortion. Conflicting reports say that she turned down the treatment amid bungled communication between officials and lawyers. Abyan was sent back to Nauru. Then Dutton granted Abyan permission to come back to have a medical procedure. As of January, she is still being detained in Brisbane.

A 5-year-old boy was also allegedly raped at Nauru. Pediatricians told the ABC the boy is currently suffering from extreme anxiety and bed-wetting and is terrified that he might be sent back to the detention center.

11. Who's in charge of all of this?

Bradley Kanaris / Getty Images

Technically, it's Dutton, the immigration minister, who was appointed to the position by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Dutton is a controversial figure. He was caught joking about Pacific Islanders drowning in rising sea levels due to global warming. He described a female journalist as a "mad fucking witch" in a text message, only to accidentally text it to the journalist he was meaning to insult. It was confirmed over the summer that he spied on a progressive politician while she visited Nauru. And, most recently, he banned men's rights activist and "legal rape" advocate Daryush Valizadeh's visa after Valizadeh tried to organize heterosexual men's meet-ups in Australia.

As for who is in charge of detention centers on an operational level, the Australian government employs contractors like Transfield or Wilson Security.

12. What does the average Australian think about all of this?


There are activists, human rights workers, and refugee advocacy groups who believe the offshore detention facilities are inhumane, but the average Australian's view of their county's detention policies is a little more complicated.

In 2014, 60% of Australians wanted the government to “increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers.” An annual poll conducted by the Australian National University in 2015 found that 45% of Australians think the country should take "stronger measures to exclude illegal immigrants."

Much of the public opinion in Australia about detention centers like Nauru has been shaped by a rash of instances where boats full of asylum-seekers capsized, killing hundreds each time. There's also the issue that the Republic of Nauru denies anything bad will happen to refugees who are resettled there.

13. When will the 267 asylum-seekers currently in Australia be sent back to Nauru?

Free the Children NAURU

Now that the Turnbull government has its ruling from the high court saying offshore detention centers are legal, deportation could happen at any moment. Many of the 54 children who are currently in limbo would be pulled out of public schools. The deportation is expected to happen by the end of the week.

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