Migrants to Australia by sea face harsh conditions, reports find

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Protesters from the Refugee Action Coalition hold placards during a demonstration outside the offices of the Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection in Sydney, Australia, April 29, 2016.  REUTERS/David Gray - RTX2C4Q5

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JUDY WOODRUFF: We have reported at length for more than a year on the migrant crisis in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

But, tonight, we look at the plight of those searching for new homes and lives far away from those shores.

Hari Sreenivasan has that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The government of Australia has, for years now, made it very clear that they will no longer accept refugees and migrants coming to the continent by boat. And those that do are sent to a tiny island nation called Nauru off Australia’s northeast coast.

But recent reports by human rights advocates, and today from The Guardian newspaper, show nightmarish conditions for more than 1,000 people who were sent for processing by Australia’s government to this island nation.

Allegations in the report include physical and sexual abuse, often aimed at children, and substandard and inhumane living conditions.

For more on this, I’m joined from Paris by Anna Neistat of Amnesty International.

Thanks for being with us.

This is a hard place to get to. You gained access where many journalists have not been able to. Tell us what you saw when you got to this island.

ANNA NEISTAT, Amnesty International: What I saw there can only be described as deliberate systematic abuse.

We’re not talking about individual incidents. And the files released today make it crystal-clear. We are talking about patterns, patterns of really serious physical conditions, heart diseases, complications from diabetes, kidney diseases that are not being treated properly, and for which people are not being transferred elsewhere to get proper care.

And probably the most nightmarish of it all is the state of psychological trauma and the rate of self-harm and attempted suicides amongst adults, but even worse among children.

I personally interviewed several children, including a boy as young as 9, who already attempted suicide and was still talking about ending his life.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What’s behind this acute issues with the children? Why are they affected in this way?

ANNA NEISTAT: Well, I think children are affected along with adults.

Children, of course, are always some of the most vulnerable, but they’re also easy targets. What they see around them when their parents are trying to kill themselves in front of their eyes, that also has enormous effect on their psychological well-being.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tell me a little bit about, what’s the relationship between Australia and this tiny island nation? It’s like 3,000 kilometers away.

ANNA NEISTAT: Well, the relationship is pretty, pretty simple.

At some point, when Australia decided that they are not going to accept refugees who are arriving by boat, ostensibly in order to prevent people from dying at sea and to combat smuggling, they set up this offshore processing.

So Australia is now paying hundreds of millions of dollars per year for this operation. Obviously, it’s a significant part of Nauru’s economy. The island doesn’t really have much else. And, in exchange, obviously, Nauru gets some employment opportunities, some investment in its infrastructure. And many people of the people — so many of the people employed by the companies who work on Nauru are local.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This is part of Australia’s policy to not allow any of these migrants or refugees to settle on Australian soil. They’re keeping them off the continent for a reason. They say that this is to create a disincentive, so more refugees don’t get on boats and you don’t see what’s been happening between the Middle East and Europe.

ANNA NEISTAT: Well, yes, and I think that’s one of the most cynical refugee policies I have ever seen. And Australia is indeed quite open about that.

They are essentially making an example of these people, so that the ones — the ones that are held in Nauru, so that others do not attempt the same route, do not arrive to arrive to Australia by boat. And I think this is not only unlawful, but it also again goes against any principles of humanity.

What they have spent enormous effort on is keeping this whole situation secret. Right? That’s why many of your viewers, I’m sure, have never heard about this situation, is because they kept it completely secret. They do not allow independent journalists or almost any journalist in, for that matter.

They do not allow any international observers, international organizations. But what’s more, they essentially swear everybody who works on the island into secrecy.

But now this veil of secrecy is off. And now that it’s off, I really think it’s high time for Australia to stop denying — denying the undeniable and really start closing down this whole operation both in Manus and in Nauru and resettling people either in Australia or in an appropriate third country.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We reached out to the Australian government for response, and they say that they are investigating the revelations today.

Anna Neistat of Amnesty International, thank you.

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