Australian Government Contractors Will Now Go to Jail for Reporting Child Abuse in Detention Centers
Last month the Australian government, with the support of the opposition, passed theBorder Force Protection Act through both houses of Parliament. It will come into effect on July 1.
If the act defines you as an "entrusted person," you might be facing jail for up to two years if you reveal anything about what happens in Australia's immigration detention centers to anybody else.
An "entrusted person" is anyone working directly or indirectly for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, so that's doctors, nurses, psychologists, teachers, counsellors, security staff, maintenance workers, or anyone who has signed a government contract.
This puts medical professionals and those who work with children on Nauru or Manus Island in bizarre circumstances. Outside of detention centers, they're legally obligated to report child abuse. As of July 1, they can't do the same with abuse witnessed on the inside.
Refugee advocates and human rights lawyers say the legislation is a veiled attempt to silence whistleblowers from revealing human rights violations inside Australia's detention centers. And the mounting evidence of such violations makes this legislation all the more disturbing.
In October last year, Australia's Immigration Department ordered ten workers from Save The Children to leave Nauru's detention center after they alleged sexual abuse against women and children.
The ensuing independent Moss Review looked at both the allegations of sexual abuse, as well as claims from then Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, that Save the Children's workers coached seekers to make false claims. It found evidence of the rape and sexual assault of minors and women as well as guards trading marijuana for sexual favors. There was no evidence of collusion between asylum seekers and advocates to make false claims. The findings of the review are subject to a senate enquiry which is due to report on July 31.
Similarly, February's Australian Human Rights Commission's (AHRC) report on children in detention found there were 233 recorded assaults involving children with 33 incidents of sexual assault between January 2013 and March 2014.
The AHRC report largely drew from interviews and testimony from staff who worked at detention centers. If the Border Force Act were in place when the AHRC was investigating, those who spoke out would've risked potential imprisonment.
Greg Barnes is a barrister and national president of the Australian Lawyers Alliance. He told VICE that the legislation prevents someone's ethical and moral duty to report abuse.
"It's ironic at the same time we have a royal commission into institutionalized sexual abuse we have a government supported by the Labor party, which is deliberately setting about to prevent disclosure of serious criminal abuse," he said.
Mr. Barnes says the law is aimed at anyone having anything to do with asylum seekers in any setting.
"If someone disclosed information that the Australian Navy or customs pushed a boat back out into dangerous waters—and people drowned because of it—they could go to jail."
He says he has "no doubt" there would be legal challenges to the legislation as "most judges and the courts generally would be horrified by legislation that allows for the cover up of physical and mental abuse."
Professor David Isaacs is a pediatrician who worked on Nauru in December last year and subsequently spoke about his experiences to the media.
The Professor remains defiant in the face of new laws, but worries others may be easily silenced with the threat of incarceration.
"It is easy for me because my kids have grown up, so it doesn't phase me," he said.
Other detention center workers with young families, he explained, have a lot more to lose, particularly given the "vindictiveness" and "viciousness" shown by the government in pursuing Freya Newman. In 2014, Newman revealed a daughter of Australia's Prime Minister had received a secret scholarship to fashion college, the Whitehouse Institute, with the aid of its chairman, a Liberal Party donor.
"That means people are scared to report child abuse even though we have a mandatory obligation to report child abuse anywhere in Australia."
Professor Isaacs says the Immigration Department is already "pretty secretive and pretty nasty" to people who've disclosed conditions to the media. He says nobody will employ him to work in a detention center again because he spoke out.
"They silence people who do it, and they do this in many ways. If we speak out on social media for instance, you may never get employed again. That is not necessarily stated outright but effectively that's what happens," he said.
When asked about the conditions he witnessed, Professor Isaacs talked of women and children too scared to go to the bathroom after dark, canvas tents with no running water, and the indefinite imprisonment of entire families in Nauru's hot, humid and inhospitable terrain in the middle of the island, well away from its 10,000 inhabitants.
"It is deliberate policy to harm people mentally and physically as an act of deterrence. It's quite extraordinary that nobody else in the world tries to make a place worse than the place asylum seekers are fleeing from."
Speaking with VICE, Greens senator and immigration spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young said, "the more we discover of what's been going on inside Nauru, the worse it gets.