Two refugees to take Australia government to court over continued detention
Two refugees are taking the Australian government to court, arguing that their detention offshore was fundamentally illegal because they were children at the time.
Cousins Mehdi and Adnan, who by chance travelled on the same boat from Jakarta to Australia, were just 16 when they were sent to Nauru – a Pacific island nation more than 3,000 kilometres (1,864 miles) northeast of Brisbane that had made a deal with Australia to host asylum seekers and refugees who had tried to get to Australia by sea. They prefer not to disclose their country of origin for security reasons.
The cases are just two of a series of upcoming hearings regarding refugees sent into Australia’s offshore detention system as unaccompanied minors.
The refugees’ lawyers allege that when the now young men were sent to Nauru, current Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was the minister for Immigration and Border Protection at the time, failed to complete an essential piece of paperwork that would have made their detention legal.
The nature of the detention itself was also a serious breach of international and domestic law, they say.
Their lawyers argue the young men should never have been detained and could have been spared the physical and mental anguish they have had to endure.
When Mehdi and Adnan were sent to Nauru, an island smaller than Sydney’s city centre, there was already clear evidence that it was not a safe place for any refugee, let alone unaccompanied children.
In early March 2014, an investigation by Australian broadcaster SBS into the offshore system, revealed the poor conditions in the then-off-limits detention camps and the declining mental health of those held there. At the time, there were 27 unaccompanied children detained on Nauru.
Mehdi and Adnan arrived on the island a month later, in April 2014.
“I don’t wish for any human being to be in such a situation, ever,” Mehdi told Al Jazeera. “It was really terrifying.”
The full extent of the situation in Nauru was not exposed until years later when 2,000 files were leaked to the British newspaper, the Guardian, detailing the “assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm attempts” that had occurred in the camp, as well as its poor living conditions.
When the boys were given refugee status in late 2014, they were allowed out of the camp, joining other unaccompanied children and teenagers in group housing.
Reports coming out of Nauru at this stage disclosed a range of new issues, from a dysfunctional and often dangerous healthcare system to inadequate education options and a lack of transparency about when the refugees’ “processing” would end, which would have enabled them to be resettled in permanent housing.
The Department of Home Affairs defended the system in response to questions from Al Jazeera.
“All illegal maritime arrivals transferred to Nauru have access to primary, mental health, and specialist health care and welfare services,” a spokesperson said, adding that all school-aged children had access to education, including tertiary classes, through the Nauruan schools.
It added that there are currently no “transitory persons” who are children or unaccompanied minors in Nauru, saying that the centre for children had not been operational since early 2019.
‘Detention, frustration, misery’
According to numerous investigations from human rights groups, news reports and personal testimony, refugees also experienced serious violence from local people in Nauru.
This violence could include anything from rape and physical assault to being run down by trucks, says Daniel Taylor, a solicitor with Sydney West Legal and Migration who represents the boys, even attempted murder.
Taylor sees this violence as an “ethnic conflict”, the result of the Australian government’s decision to put more than 1,600 refugees and asylum seekers into fenced compounds on an island with a population of just under 11,000.
The Nauruans simply did not want the refugees there, he told Al Jazeera.
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