Passport

Australia to Aid Group: Sorry-Not-Sorry For Blaming You For Dead Refugees

Two days after blaming refugee advocates for encouraging self-harm among detainees at Nauru Island, the Australian government compensated a charity for similar accusations made in 2014.

SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES - MAY 04:  Protestors hold a vigil at Sydney Town Hall on May 4, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. Hodan Yasin, a 21-year-old Somali refugee is being treated in a Brisbane hospital after setting herself alight in detention on Nauru on Monday. It is the second attempt on Nauru in a week, after Iranian refugee Omid Masoumali set himself on fire last Wednesday. He later died from his injuries.  (Photo by Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES - MAY 04: Protestors hold a vigil at Sydney Town Hall on May 4, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. Hodan Yasin, a 21-year-old Somali refugee is being treated in a Brisbane hospital after setting herself alight in detention on Nauru on Monday. It is the second attempt on Nauru in a week, after Iranian refugee Omid Masoumali set himself on fire last Wednesday. He later died from his injuries. (Photo by Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)

The Australian government on Friday paid blood money to compensate a charity after having blamed it for spurring would-be immigrants to undertake dangerous protests of Canberra’s immigration policies. But Australian leaders are still blaming refugee advocates for the plight of migrants trapped in their controversial, offshore detention centers.

The whole controversy began in 2014, when a group of asylum-seekers at Nauru, one of the infamous detention centers, sewed their mouths closed. They were protesting Canberra’s decision not to offer them visas and instead relocate them to Cambodia. Others drank laundry detergent or cut themselves in what Refugee Action Coalition’s Ian Rintoul at the time called “an epidemic of self-harm.”

The Australian government’s response was to blame staff members of the refugee-advocacy group Save the Children for having coached the migrants into harming themselves. Ten staff members were removed from the center, nine of whom were later deported.

In joint statement with Save the Children Australia released Friday, Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection said that it regretted that the allegations “may have led other NGOs and members of the public to question the integrity of SCA as a provider of government services or, to the extent that it may be relevant, as a child rights organisation.”

“We would never train a client to self-harm, as we see the effects of what happens there, we realise it can lead to suicide and death. We are trained and committed humanitarian staff,” the Save the Children staffer told The Guardian in 2014.

Despite the very public apology, Australia’s conservative government isn’t changing course. Two detainees at the Nauru Island detention center set themselves on fire this month. A 21-year-old Somali woman, Hodan Yasin, is in critical condition after self-immolating on Monday; Omid, a 23-year-old Iranian refugee who set himself on fire during a U.N. visit to the island last week, died last Friday.

According to the Australian government, it was because refugee advocates had encouraged them.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said Tuesday that the asylum seekers had been encouraged by messages of false hope. He added that while advocates might want to support refugees, “to provide advice otherwise is very dangerous. We are seeing that play out at the moment. We are not going to allow for it to continue.”

Australia’s use of offshore detention facilities to stem the influx of immigrants and asylum seekers is notorious. The Nauru Island facility was opened in 2001, but had fallen out of use when an unprecedented number of asylum seekers began arriving on Australia’s shores by boat in 2012-2013. In response, Canberra re-opened Nauru and another facility on Manus Island. Australia says the centers are to discourage asylum seekers from coming to Australia by sea.

But conditions there have been dire. Former guards and aid groups have documented repeated human rights violations with dirty conditions, child abuse, and lack of proper medical care.

Last week, a Papua New Guinea court ruled the Manus Island center unconstitutional, prompting one former government official to retort that the Australian system was better than death at sea. Some detainees appear to disagree.

“Suicide is sweeter than Australia’s dirty policy,” read a sign that a detainee held during a 2014 protest.

Photo credit: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images

Megan Alpert is a fellow at Foreign Policy. Her previous bylines have included The Guardian, Guernica Daily, and Earth Island Journal. @megan_alpert

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