Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) has played a key role in exposing the Australian Government’s mistreatment of people seeking asylum, who are held in off-shore detention camps in Australia’s South Pacific island neighbours.
People seeking asylum, who arrive to Australia by boat, are detained in offshore processing centers as part of the Australian government’s offshore detention policy. The policy was established in reaction to high-profile cases where the lives of people seeking asylum were lost at sea.
The offshore processing facilities and indefinite detention regime have been criticized by the UNHCR. They are described by many observers and civil society groups as ‘offshore detention camps.’ Journalists’ access to the camps has been impeded and critics have said the policy breaches the human rights of people seeking asylum. The Australian Government claims the camps are needed to stop people seeking asylum in Australia and arriving by boat.
ASRC’s advocacy has had a focus on the mental and physical health of people seeking asylum, and in particular the refugees in the offshore detention program being housed on Nauru and on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
In late 2017, the ASRC sent a team of three staff and a videographer to bear witness to the conditions on Manus Island, which included a late-night boat journey to access the detention centre. The visit culminated in a report exposing the shocking conditions and deterioration in the health of the people being detained on Manus.
This was followed up by a September 2018 report detailing the current situation on Nauru, using the testimony of whistleblowers and Nauruans, which documented the prevalence of self-harm and the plight of adults and children being held in the detention camps.
The following month, 83 de-identified sets of medical records collated by the ASRC were used in a Sydney Morning Herald investigation. The reporting exposed how medical advice recommending refugees be transferred to Australia, was being ignored by the authorities.
The records of 17 children included in the audit showed severe psychological issues. Some adults had been waiting three or four years to be transferred for treatment, despite having a range of chronic medical issues – including suspected cancer cases.
The ASRC has made a significant difference to individual cases, working with teams of pro-bono lawyers to ensure that the Australian Government brings sick refugees to Australia for urgent treatment. Not a single case taken to court has been lost to date. The Centre’s commitment to bringing the truth to light and their sustained engagement fighting offshore detention has ensured that the bravery of a series of whistleblowing medics has had a long-term impact.
ASRC began in 2001, the same year a boat carrying 433 people seeking asylum became stranded in international waters near Australia. The incident led to tougher border controls and offshore migrant processing facilities, with the government saying no asylum would be given to those reaching Australia by boat.
People seeking asylum who tried to reach Australia by boat but were instead detained in offshore camps are now suing the government, saying that they have been subjected to “torture” and “crimes against humanity” – the kind of conditions ASRC is trying to change.
A 28-year-old teacher of welfare studies, Kon Karapanagiotidis, who held degrees in law, social work and behavioral sciences, set up the ASRC when he couldn’t find non-profit groups willing to take some of his Victoria University of Technology students for six-week placements.
On June 8, 2001, Karapanagiotidis opened the ASRC in a tiny 20-square-metre shop front, with one phone and a small table donated by his mother as the reception desk. In his memoir, Karapanagiotidis reflected that opening the ASRC had come with implications for his teaching job.
“The university thought that what I had done was too political and that I had jeopardised its relationship with the federal government”
Nevertheless, in 2015 the university honored him as one of its alumni of the year.
The organization now has an income of more than $13 million a year and 150 staff. It has assisted over 17,000 people seeking asylum since it began. Despite funding issues bringing it to near-closure at times, it has never accepted government funding in order to maintain its independence,
The work of the ASRC has had an important and lasting impact on the lives of the people it has helped. The conditions faced by people seeking asylum held in offshore detention has led to two class action lawsuits being filed in the Australian High Court in December 2018. Some 1,200 migrants detained on the islands of Nauru and Manus (Papua New Guinea) say conditions were inhumane and allege mistreatment by the Australian government, which they claim amounts to negligence.
The Australian Government claims the offshore detention policy has stopped the flotillas of people being sent from Southeast Asian ports. It announced that any people seeking asylum who attempt to reach the shores by boat from July 19, 2013 would never be allowed to settle in the country. But the ASRC says that doesn’t account for how people seeking asylum are being treated. Despite the proclamation of success in ‘stopping the boats’, the government agreed to pay $53 million as compensation to 1,905 Manus Island detainees who were held at the Papua New Guinea-based facility between November 2012 and December 2014.
Karapanagiotidis told Al-Jazeera that the government didn’t want to go trial because the extent of the brutal mistreatment his group is trying to stop would come out, undercutting Australia’s long-held claims that it treats refugees and migrants better than any country.
“Australia has tortured these people for four years. It has deprived them of natural justice. It’s left them in squalor. It was never about the money. It’s always been about their human rights and having the acknowledgement that this country is violating their rights,” he said.
“You would have heard from these men the stories of being fed food that at times contained maggots, worms, human teeth, and human hair. You would have heard stories of being held in a camp and facing life-threatening illnesses, without due processes, without basic human rights. You would have heard guards, nurses, doctors, teachers and social workers talking about watching the neglect, seeing the abuse, and then seeing the abuses covered up.”
It’s the kind of stuff most people never hear, or don’t want to, but which ASRC comes up against constantly as it works to bring rights to people in a country where they essentially have none, after leaving miserable and dangerous conditions behind to seek refuge.
“This policy of turning people back has been politically popular because it has really tapped into xenophobia, fear and racism, and while most Australians are not racist, racism is a really big issue in this country.
“We’re actually talking about human beings, not boats. If we turn people back at sea, it just means they die somewhere else. We are dumbed down to fear refugees, see them as a threat and burden, rather than as a moral obligation, a humanitarian opportunity and that these people actually come sharing our values, wanting peace and to integrate and contribute,” Karapanagiotidis said.
This Special Recognition Award is presented to the ASRC for its work, in partnership with others, revealing the human tragedy of Australia’s offshore detention camps, and fearlessly speaking up about this in the public interest.