Accommodation in the Nauru offshore processing facility. Photo by: DIAC / CC BY

As yet another report highlights the human toll of Australia’s offshore migrant processing system, NGOs and advocacy organizations are asking themselves what it will take to make a change.

Countless investigators and human rights groups have raised concerns about Australia’s processing system in recent months, most recently Amnesty International with a report published Tuesday. “Island of Despair, Australia’s “processing” of refugees on Nauru” draws on interviews with more than 100 people in Nauru and Australia to document mental health abuses leading to suicide and self-harm; assaults on children; inadequate medical care; violations of human rights; and the trapping of refugees in legal limbo.

While such reports have created greater public awareness of the conditions on Nauru, they haven’t convinced the Australian government to change tactics. All unapproved refugees, including boat arrivals, are sent to nearby countries including Nauru for processing. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton recently declared the Australian policy a “success” and even indicated that European countries are interested in emulating it.

So what next? Devex spoke with advocates and experts in the field about how NGOs could best target their activism and lobbying going forward.

Action to date

Campaigns to stop offshore detention have highlighted the secrecy surrounding activities and international law being broken by Australia and Nauru.

“At the end of 2012 I was able to visit Nauru with the full blessing of the Nauru government,” Dr. Graham Thom, refugee coordinator at Amnesty International, explained to Devex. “Since 2013, a change in governments in Nauru and Australia has resulted in concerted efforts to stop people visiting and scrutinising what was happening.”

Secrecy provisions in Australia’s Border Force Act, introduced in 2015, made it illegal for employees including doctors to discuss detention centers. Also in an effort to stop scrutiny, the Nauru government has raised the cost of visa processing to $8,000 without guarantee of acceptance. It has blocked a range of visits including the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and a delegation of Danish lawmakers.

“There are not many other countries in the world that lock U.N. visits as well as delegations of visiting politicians from democratic European countries,” Thom said.

In analyzing the legality of offshore processing, Amnesty International has shown that Australia’s offshore processing infringes on 16 fundamental human rights including rights to health, education, family life, fair trial, liberty and bans on transfers to locations that pose a real risk of serious human rights violations.

The treatment of refugees could face scrutiny in Australian and international courts that could rule on financial compensation for refugees. Among those facing possible legal action are contractors providing services for Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection including Connect Settlement, Broadspectrum and Wilson Security.

“Private contractors could face legal action which is why a number of them are pulling out of Nauru,” Thom explained. “There is a very real fear that they could be taken to various courts for their treatment of people in the centers and there is very good chance people will take legal proceedings against them.”

How can NGOs assist?

Amnesty International is encouraging NGOs worldwide to get involved. “Any pressure is important, and those who know best about aid and development need to be speaking up,” Thom explained.

Among those already lobbying Nauru are Amnesty International, Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, Oxfam, the Refugee Council of Australia, Save the Children, UNICEF and World Vision.

International NGOs in Australia plan to pass a resolution condemning the ongoing harm and torture cause to people at the 2016 Australian Council for International Development conference on Oct. 26. The resolution will call for immediate government action.

Public messing also remains important. “NGOs have to work in alignment with other campaigns to get their message out,,” Marc Purcell, executive director of ACFID, told Devex. He said campaigns need a clear narrative that is aligned across agencies.

“Campaigns are better when they are focused and NGOs want to ensure that the message is not lost within another issue,” he said. NGOs can then encourage their networks to sign petitions and support action against Australia’s policy.

One possible campaign tagline could play off of Australia’s history as a sanctuary for refugees, according to Tim Middlemiss, communications director at social marketing company the Agency.

“For a while I’ve wanted to see the sector pushing the notion of ‘Australia as a sanctuary’ by speaking to our peaceful history and the long precedent of providing safety for those fleeing war,” he told Devex. “Imagine a grass-roots movement of people chalking the pavements outside schools, and businesses and community groups with the word ‘sanctuary’”.

NGOs can draw on political supporters and connections to encourage discussion of Australia’s treatment within their Parliament and request to visit Nauru so they can see the situation first hand. Aside from the Danish parliamentarians, there has not been enough international political discussion, according to Thom.

Close to home

Australian NGOs can leverage domestic politics to their cause by using existing ties with politicians to campaign directly to the government’s opposition.

“The issue of asylum-seeker campaigning in Australia has been politicised so heavily in the collective memories of every Australian that to smooth a pathway for a change of policy would be almost impossible,” Middlemiss said. “As a result, I’d recommend direct advocacy to the opposition — feeding them them policy positions, giving them access to key moments, using the strong base of support to make new heroes and building this up until the next election.”

Other local actions could include organizing public forums to discuss offshore processing, the lack of transparency on Nauru, impact on refugees and alternate solution. Supportive organizations could also offer financial support to assist legal action for the rights of refugees, building upon a recent Supreme Court decision in Papua New Guinea that found detention of asylum-seekers on Manus Island was illegal.

NGOs could encourage intergovernmental organizations to rule or provide clarity on the legality of offshore processing. To date, no clear statements have been made.

“While it may be a divisive issue, we know that when people see the humanity of the situation, they are moved to respond with welcome,” Middlemiss explained. “At the same time, the policy of offshore detention is illogical, expensive, and becoming untenable.”

The beginning of progress?

According to Thom, the tide of global public opinion is beginning to turn against Australia’s treatment of refugees.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has recently released a damning report, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants hopes to visit Nauru in November and Thom is hoping for action from the incoming U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, due to his previous role as U.N. high commissioner for refugees.

“It will be interesting to see how he responds as he would be very aware of the treatment on Nauru,” Thom told Devex.

Amnesty International will be mounting campaigns to leverage changing attitudes among the international community.

Following the Australian launch of the report, Amnesty International will first visit Canberra to speak directly with politicians and discuss how offshore processing impacts Australia, at home and in international forums. Highlighting the cost of Australia’s offshore processing, according to the report more 573,000 Australian dollars ($419,425) per person to maintain, will factor highly in a parliament that counts every dollar and cent.

Amnesty International will likewise be meeting with various U.N. bodies to ensure there is international scrutiny on what is happening in Australia’s offshore detention centers.

“This will be part of a global campaign looking at refugee rights and refugee issues,” Thom said.

“One of the reason we keep doing this work is to make sure the countries see how embarrassing this is when they face scrutiny,” Thom said. “Countries will not want to engage Australia in agreements because we will call them out and show that they are breaking international law. This is especially shameful if they are trying to present themselves as good global citizens.”

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About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.