Two class action lawsuits filed in Australia's High Court claim people seeking asylum in Australia who arrive by boat without proper documentation are subject to torture and crimes against humanity. The suits say the Australian government is also guilty of intentional infliction of harm in the use of an offshore processing system, according to The Guardian.
The suits were filed by the National Justice Project, a human rights group based in Australia, and represent about 1,200 migrants detained in camps on the independent island of Nauru and on Manus, Papua New Guinea. Researchers and activists say many of them fled from places such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Myanmar and even Bangladesh seeking asylum.
The suits accuse the Australian government of breaking international law and abrogating its "duty of care" for asylum seekers, reports The New York Times. The team representing the migrants is seeking injunctions to transfer the asylum seekers to safety in Australia and award damages, arguing that they have been subject to arbitrary imprisonment and severe deprivation of physical liberty; denial of proper medical assessments and treatment; inadequate security and protection; inadequate food and water; inadequate accommodation; and an unhygienic environment, the Times reports.
For several years, The Guardian reports, there have been serious allegations and incidents on Manus and Nauru of "officials denying, delaying or blocking the transfers of people who doctors said required urgent medical care."
The National Justice Project said the Australian government was continuing to treat its clients in this manner "in order to deter other people from trying to get to Australia by boat in order to seek asylum," according to The Guardian.
In October, aid group Médecins Sans Frontières said the mental health situation of refugees on Nauru is "beyond desperate," and called "for the immediate evacuation of all asylum seekers and refugees from the island and for an end to the Australian offshore detention policy."
The New York Times reports, "In documents submitted to the court, detainees describe conditions on the islands that include 'high levels of self-harm, including self-cutting, lip sewing, swallowing rocks, burning with cigarettes' and 'refraining from eating and drinking.' "
Australia's Department of Home Affairs has not replied to a request seeking comment on the lawsuits. In September 2016, NPR's Steve Inskeep spoke with Australia's then-immigration minister, Peter Dutton, about the country's policy toward people trying to arrive by boat without proper permission. Dutton said settlement of refugees such as those on Manus and Nauru might result in an uncontrollable influx of migrants to Australia in the future.
"The fear is that the 50,000 would come again on 800 boats and we would have 1,200 people drowning at sea. The image that people saw on the television screens of the little boy who died in the waters of the Mediterranean - that played out 1,200 times," Dutton said.
In June 2017, NPR reported the Australian government agreed to a $70 million ($53 million U.S.) settlement with 1,905 people who were held at a refugee detention camp on Manus Island. In that lawsuit, detainees accused the Australian government of negligence and false imprisonment.
Some of the beneficiaries were to be granted asylum in the U.S. "The Obama administration agreed to take 1,250 refugees from Manus and other offshore facilities," NPR reported. "The Trump administration has agreed to uphold the agreement, though President Trump has called it a 'dumb deal.' "
In the past Australia's Department of Home Affairs has refuted claims of dangerous conditions for people in off-shore detention centers.
Earlier this year, in response to a Refugee Council of Australia's report on the processing of refugees in Nauru, the department wrote:
"The Department takes the health and safety of refugees and transferees in Nauru very seriously and welcomes independent scrutiny of Australia's support of regional processing arrangements. ... Decisions about medical transfers are made on a case by case basis according to clinical need, in consultation with the contracted health services provider and following advice from Medical Officers of the Commonwealth."
In its response, the department also affirmed, "The Australian Government's position has not changed; these individuals will never settle permanently in Australia."