Human rights advocates say some 1,200 immigrants who have sought shelter in Australia were banished to a remote island in the Pacific Ocean to deter other asylum seekers from entering the country by boat.
In a damning new report, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch claimed that for years, most of these men, women and children have been held on the island of Nauru in "prisonlike" conditions and have been abused, neglected and denied proper medical care for often serious illnesses.
The advocacy groups claim that the Australian government has turned a blind eye to the "appalling abuse" — sending a clear message to any others who are considering coming to the country.
"This is an astounding situation — astounding in the worst possible sense," Michael Bochenek, senior counsel for children's rights at Human Rights Watch, told The Washington Post on Wednesday. He added: "It's difficult to come up with a parallel where a government has taken such steps to prevent people from seeking freedom" by taking "vulnerable people" and "transferring them to a speck of land and saying that is an adequate response to the needs of refugees and asylum seekers."
Bochenek and Anna Neistat, senior director of research for Amnesty International, made the trip to Nauru last month to document the conditions.
"The combination of the scale and the systematic nature of abuse and the secrecy is mind-boggling," Neistat told The Post in a telephone interview.
In the past, Bochenek said, Australia's government has either denied such abuses or said it was not responsible for them. He said the advocates did not approach the government before releasing the new report.
Officials scolded them for it.
"We would strongly encourage Amnesty International to contact the department before airing allegations of this kind," Australia's Department of Immigration and Border Protection said in a statement, according to the Associated Press. "The department strongly refutes many of the allegations in the report."
The researchers with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch spent almost two weeks interviewing 84 immigrants on Nauru, a small island more than 2,700 miles from Australia in the Pacific Ocean.
Many fled violence and persecution in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, among other countries, to find peace. "In seeking freedom," Bochenek said, "they've been exiled to a place they never wanted to go."
The joint report states that for nearly four years, Australia has been "forcibly transferring" asylum seekers to the island under an agreement with the Republic of Nauru to house them at Australia's expense.
The Memorandum of Understanding states Nauru will "host transferees" either at processing centers, or in more permanent settlements when it deems there is a need for international protection.
It outlines the objectives:
1. The Participants have determined that combating People Smuggling and Irregular Migration in the Asia-Pacific region is a shared objective. Transfer arrangements and the establishment of Regional Processing Centres are a visible deterrent to people smugglers.
2. This MOU will enable joint cooperation, including the development of enhanced capacity in Nauru, to address these issues.
3. The Participants understand the importance of regional cooperation and have determined to continue discussions as to how these transfer, assessment and settlement arrangements might over time be broadened under the regional cooperation framework.
The Australian government contends that by transferring migrants offshore, it is helping to remove the motivation for a dangerous and often deadly journey to its coastline, according to the Associated Press.
But human rights advocates say keeping them on a hot and hostile island where their basic human needs are not met is just as bad.
The researchers with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said asylum seekers are sent to processing centers on the island and, once they are recognized as refugees, most are given other accommodations.
As of last year, the researchers said, all of them have been permitted to roam freely around the island; but many are too afraid to do so.
Bochenek, with Human Rights Watch, said many people he interviewed said that when they ventured out, the islanders would attack them with rocks, branches and fists, spit on them and shout, "f------ refugees!"
Children said they had been bullied at school. Their parents said they had been beaten and robbed.
Six women said they had been sexually harassed and possibly assaulted, but did not speak in detail.
"We are always scared, all the time," one woman told the researchers, according to the report. "I am always checking the door to see if it is locked. We can't go out alone.
"A lot of times, some Nauruans get drunk and come near the entrance by the road and shout at us."
The migrants said that when they approach local police about such crimes, police dismiss their concerns, discourage them from filing a report or accuse them of filing a false report.
The migrants told the researchers that some of their greatest concerns stem from the lack of proper medical care on the island for physical and mental health issues.
Some said they are suffering serious medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or kidney problems. Others — those with personal and family history of cancer — are worried about growths and possible tumors.
Women are struggling with gynecological issues and problem childbirths, and newborns are struggling with infections and other health issues, according to the report.
The researchers said a medical specialist from Australia may visit the island from time to time and, when specialized treatment is recommended overseas, an immigrant may be transported to Australia or Fiji.
But, they said, medical referrals are extremely difficult to come by and can take months to process.
"In each and every case, the way they describe interactions with doctors, makes me think that it’s not just a random lapse or random oversight; it’s really a denial of medical care," Neistat said.
But Amnesty International's Neistat said psychological problems such as suicide and self-harm are "one of the most frightening features of what's happening there."
Some adults described themselves as anxious, paranoid, depressed and despondent, and said they were unable to sleep through the night. Some children, the researchers said, would not speak or look them in the eye.
Others talked about suicide.
"There is one thing worse than torture — torture people inflict on themselves because they feel their bodies are the only thing they have left to negotiate with," Neistat said.
Human rights advocates say these immigrants have spent years waiting for salvation that never comes — losing all hope as well as the will to fight to find it again.
Those who were interviewed by researchers said immigration authorities initially told them they were being transferred to Nauru for "processing" to be resettled in another country within months, according to the report.
Months then turn into years.
Bochenek, with Human Rights Watch, said the time frame has been extended three or four times; each time, immigration authorities deny the promises that came before.
And leaving the island is not a valid option: Some asylum seekers who have been approved as refugees have been given "travel documents," but when they attempt to use them to obtain visas, they said, their requests are denied, according to the report.
Others are told they can go home or to Cambodia.
Bochenek said that the Australian government is not only aware of the civil rights abuses on Nauru but is condoning them and, in effect, "adopting them, to deter boat arrivals."
"People here don’t have a real life," one woman told them. "We are just surviving. We are dead souls in living bodies. We are just husks. We don’t have any hope or motivation."
This story has been updated.