Australia Spends Billions Causing Untold Damage to Refugees

Australia Spends Billions Causing Untold Damage to Refugees

JURIST Guest Columnists Greg Barns of RMIT University Graduate School of Business and Law and Anna Talbot of Australian Lawyers Alliance discuss the need for improved policies regarding refugees in Australia…

On Tuesday Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, stood in front of world leaders and claimed his government’s refugee policy was the best in the world. But many people in Australia will tell you that Mr. Turnbull’s boasting was misplaced. Over the past decade Australia has pursued an expensive, inhumane policy that has inflicted suffering on thousands of desperate people who have been detained in hell holes in Australia and offshore.

In fact, our country has spent, and is continuing to spend billions of dollars detaining and further traumatizing refugees and asylum seekers for years once they show up on our doorstep. Asylum seekers don’t come to Australia anymore. Boats carrying these vulnerable people are turned around in international waters, in direct contravention of international law. Increasing levels of governmental secrecy seek to distance our population from the inhumanity that we inflict.

Australia’s policy is based on deterrence, building on 15 straight years of fear mongering and demonization of the world’s most vulnerable by Australia’s political elite. In 2001, the ‘children overboard’ affair ushered in a new era of lies, which would come to characterize policy around asylum seekers and refugees. The then-Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, accused asylum seekers of throwing their children off the boat they were on in an effort to manipulate Australian authorities into offering assistance. The asylum seekers were in fact trying to ensure that their children were safe. The boat was sinking beneath them. A few months prior to this disgraceful episode Mr. Howard had refused entry into Australian waters of a cargo vessel, the Tampa, which had rescued asylum seekers whose boat was sinking.

We have spent $A9.6 billion over the past three years on our refugee policy. It consists of an immigration detention system that includes two offshore detention centers on the impoverished Pacific Island nation of Nauru and on Manus Island, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, mandatory onshore immigration detention, and turning back asylum seeker boats (usually to countries where the occupants face persecution, torture and even death). UNICEF [PDF] estimates that Australia spends at least $A400,000 detaining each individual asylum seeker in offshore detention each year. It costs less than half that to detain a single prisoner. Then there is the disastrous deal with Cambodia, where the Australian government handed over $A40 million in aid to that nation in exchange for four, yes four, asylum seekers being resettled there.

What do Australians get for their money? On Nauru and Manus Island, it causes immeasurable damage. A cache of more than 2000 incident reports known as the Nauru Files was recently released by the Guardian newspaper. It details terrifying levels of despair. Threats of self-harm are reported on a near weekly basis. Actual self-harm, including suicide attempts, are reported nearly as regularly. Sexual assault of children is rife, with numerous reports of guards and others touching young girls. One child described how someone had ‘cut me from under’, pointing to the vagina area of a cut out doll to further clarify what had happened to her. Another child reported being handed a sexually-explicit note by a local guard. The note is reproduced [PDF] in the incident report. In child-like lettering, it invites the recipient to ‘come and kiss my pins’; ‘come and gigey xxx’; ‘come and kiss my botm’.

Asylum seekers also face threats in their host communities. A number of women on Nauru have been violently raped. Children have been sexually harassed by local children and guards. Men in Papua New Guinea have been brutally beaten. Some fear that if they report a crime against them, they will be targeted by perpetrators in the local community, or that it will affect their asylum application. So there may be many more incidents of abuse that are not recorded.

There have also been deaths. One man died in a riot on Manus Island in February 2014. The inquiry [PDF] that followed said that the events were eminently foreseeable. Locals entered the center and assaulted detainees. Non-essential staff fled. Asylum seekers and refugees were on their own, and a 23-year-old asylum seeker lost his life, beaten to death.

Another man detained on Manus Island died of septicemia in August 2014. A rash on his leg was allowed to fester, in the face of increasingly urgent demands from doctors that he be flown for essential treatment, first to Port Moresby and then to Australia. Resistance and delays on the part of the Department meant that, by the time he finally landed in Brisbane, he was probably already brain dead.

This year, Nauru saw two self-immolations. One of these people, a male refugee, died. Again, there were delays in evacuating him to Australia for medical treatment, which his wife believes caused his death.

Accounts of rape are terrifying. An epileptic woman was raped in the midst of a seizure on Nauru, becoming pregnant as a result. Rather than respond to such horror with compassion, the Minister for Immigration sought to fly the woman concerned to Papua New Guinea (where abortion is illegal) for the termination that was medically necessary, due to the woman’s mental state and epilepsy. Her advocates were required to get a court order earlier this year to stop the Minister from forcing her to undergo the procedure in a country completely unequipped to meet her medical needs.

The Australian Human Rights Commission last year released a report detailing the physical and psychological impact of this ongoing detention on children. The President of the Commission, Gillian Triggs, was complemented for the quality of the report’s data when she was at the United Nations. No other country had produced such a compelling document on the impact of detention on children. Of course, no other country could. Australia is unique in the lengths it will go to in its ‘world’s best’ asylum seeker deterrence policy.

Some health workers in these facilities have disclosed what they have seen in an attempt to stop the damage and mistreatment. Paul Stevenson specializes in helping people live after experiencing trauma. He has attended all major Australian disasters over the last four decades, including a massacre, a tsunami and a bombing. Confronting trauma every day for nearly half a century, however, Stevenson describes what he confronted in Nauru and Papua New Guinea as the worst he has seen. He lost his job after he came forward.

Dr. Peter Young, a former psychiatrist in detention facilities, has given evidence [PDF] to the Australian Human Rights Commission that detention causes mental illness. He revealed significant levels of mental illness among children in a report he provided to the Department. The Department’s response, rather than seeking to make children safer, was to ask for the relevant figures to be withdrawn from the report. Dr. Young told the Commission that medical recommendations were being overridden by the Department at a concerning rate. His phone records were later reviewed by the Australian Federal Police due to suspicions he was sharing confidential information.

Australia’s policy of deterrence has focused on stifling these voices, rather than responding to their concerns. Last year, it became illegal under Australian law for any workers in immigration detention facilities to talk about what they had seen. The penalty is now two years in prison. Doctors have said they are concerned about the impact of this law on their ability to care for detainees. While the government has said it is not the intention to interfere with the work of medical staff, the law is clear.

This is just a selection of the inhumanity that this ‘world’s best’ policy is inflicting. There is no end to the astonishingly cruel lengths Australia will go to, to deter requests for help.

Strong borders are not what is required for public acceptance. It is strong leadership that we need, and it has been sadly lacking on both sides of Australian politics for at least 15 years. Australia now has the dubious reputation of having exported the most inhumane refugee systems in the world. This is not something to boast about, Mr. Turnbull.

Australia’s is not a policy to replicate. It is a policy to condemn. The world’s asylum crisis will not be solved by inhumanity and cruelty. It requires kindness and generosity. Imagine the good that could be done if Australia’s budget for cruelty could be redirected to helping people in desperate need.

Greg Barns is a barrister and lecturer in Jurisprudence at RMIT University Graduate School of Business and Law in Melbourne Australia. He is also a former National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, a leading human rights advocacy group.

Anna Talbot is Legal and Policy Adviser with the Australian Lawyers Alliance. She has previously worked as a solicitor and as an advocate at the United Nations for Amnesty International.

Suggested citation: Greg Barns & Anna Talbot, Australia Spends Billions Causing Untold Damage to Refugees, JURIST – Dateline, September 28, 2016,

This article was prepared for publication by Alix Ware, an assistant Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to her at

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.