Passport

Australia Treats Refugees Horribly. But Denmark Wants a Peek at That Playbook.

A group of Danish parliamentarians won rare access to an Australian offshore detention center where abuse and exploitation are rampant.

NAURU, NAURU:  The barren and bankrupt island state of the Republic of Nauru awaits the arrival of 521 mainly Afghan refugees, 11 September 2001 which have been refused entry into Australia.  The 25-square-kilometers of land encompassing Nauru has been devastated by phosphate mining which once made the Micronesian Nauruans the second wealthiest people per capita on earth.          AFP PHOTO/Torsten BLACKWOOD (Photo credit should read )
NAURU, NAURU: The barren and bankrupt island state of the Republic of Nauru awaits the arrival of 521 mainly Afghan refugees, 11 September 2001 which have been refused entry into Australia. The 25-square-kilometers of land encompassing Nauru has been devastated by phosphate mining which once made the Micronesian Nauruans the second wealthiest people per capita on earth. AFP PHOTO/Torsten BLACKWOOD (Photo credit should read )

Australians have found an efficient if brutal solution for getting rid of asylum seekers: send them to offshore detention facilities, hire a shadowy private company to watch over them, and then force them to settle elsewhere once the U.N. recognizes them as refugees.

Controversial as it may be, the Australian model has one apparent taker: The Danish government. This week, a delegation of Danish parliamentarians secured a rare opportunity to visit Australia’s largest offshore detention center, on the tiny island-nation of Nauru, and find out whether a similar approach could work for Europe, which is dealing with its own influx of refugees and asylum-seekers.

The approval for their visas came a few weeks after the Guardian published a cache of leaked documents detailing rampant human rights abuses, sexual assaults, and incidents of self-harm at the facility, with women and children bearing the brunt of wrongdoing. The reports document abuse from security guards allegedly slapping children in the face, to teachers exchanging privileges for sexual favors from students, to bus drivers taking voyeuristic photos of female detainees.

The asylum-seekers must wait months if not years for the U.N. refugee agency to assess their claims. Once their claims are approved, and most of them are, they can either resettle in Cambodia or remain on the impoverished island, in an area one-tenth the size of Washington, D.C. In 2015, Cambodia agreed to take refugees from Nauru in return for $40 million in aid from Australia.

Since then, only five refugees have accepted the offer, and three of those five — a married Iranian couple as well as a Rohingya Muslim from Myanmar — eventually returned to their homelands despite the risks.

“Australia has found an interesting model,” said Martin Henriksen, one of six Danish politicians who will visit Nauru and a member of the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party. He suggested on Danish radio that Denmark could maintain offsite refugee camps in Kenya or Greenland.

Other politicians in the delegation are more skeptical that Australia’s approach, widely condemned by human rights groups, is worth replicating.

“We are really worried by the reports about conditions on Nauru and Manus Island,” said Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen, another member of the delegation who belongs to a socialist-green party.

Another delegate, Jacob Mark, a member of the Socialist People’s Party, emphasized that the delegation is going to Nauru to learn, and not to endorse Australian policy.

In April, the supreme court of Papua New Guinea ordered the closure of Australia’s other big offshore detention facility, on the island of Manus, after ruling it unconstitutional.

The government of Nauru tightly regulates access to the detention facility, and bars all but the most sympathetic journalists from visiting. Journalists from the Guardian, Australia’s public television network SBS, ABC, and Al Jazeera have all applied for visas, at a cost of $8,000, to no avail.

On Wednesday, one of Australia’s most vocal opponents of offshore detentions revealed that her application to visit the Nauru facility was denied as well.

“Real journalists aren’t allowed anywhere near the island and now members of Parliament aren’t allowed to inspect the detention camp or meet with people that have been sent there,” Sarah Hanson-Young, an Australian senator and member of the left-wing Greens party, said.

It appears that she may have spoken too soon. As the Danish delegation’s visit suggests, all it takes is one open mind to get access.

Photo credit: TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. Twitter: @HenryJohnsoon
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