Demonstrators expressing solidarity with asylum seekers in Melbourne, Australia, last month.
The Pacific island nation of Nauru has announced that it is relaxing conditions at a detention center where hundreds of people seeking asylum in Australia are being held.
Beginning on Monday, detainees will have freedom of movement on the tiny island “24 hours per day, seven days per week,” according to a statement from Nauru’s Department of Justice and Border Control.
David Adeang, the justice minister, also said that all outstanding asylum claims would be processed within the next week. About 600 people are still waiting to have their claims processed.
“The start of detention-free processing is a landmark day for Nauru and represents an even more compassionate program, which was always the intention of our government,” Mr. Adeang said.
Peter Dutton, Australia’s immigration minister, said in a written statement that Australia welcomed the announcements. Australia finances the detention center, which was built in 2001 and reopened in 2012 after being closed for five years.
Advocates have criticized Australia’s policy to hold asylum seekers on outlying islands, where they face the risks of violence and long periods in difficult conditions with limited medical care.
“It is a welcome development that will provide some relief to the 600 or so people being detained,” said Hugh de Kretser, the executive director of the Human Rights Law Center in Melbourne, Australia. “But it doesn’t address the fundamental injustice of warehousing people on a tiny island nation.”
Mr. de Kretser questioned the timing of the announcement, which comes just days before a hearing at Australia’s High Court on a challenge to the country’s immigration policy filed by the law center.
“We don’t think it’s a coincidence that this announcement is happening three years after the reopening of the detention center and two days before the highest court is considering the lawfulness of offshore detention on Nauru,” he said.
The legal challenge has been brought on behalf of a pregnant woman from Bangladesh who was taken to Australia from the detention center in Nauru for hospital treatment. More than 200 asylum seekers, including 50 children, are also seeking legal protection after being taken to Australia for medical care they could not receive in Nauru and on Manus Island, the site of another detention center in Papua New Guinea.
“We are asking the Australian government to have compassion and not send them back to an environment, which is clearly unsafe, whether they’re inside the fence or outside the fence,” Mr. de Kretser said.
The offshore detention policy has its origins in the so-called Pacific Solution put into place in the early 2000s under Prime Minister John Howard. The approach was phased out in 2007, but the government brought it back after arrivals climbed drastically in 2012 and 2013.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott credited the program with a sharp decline in the number of arrivals by boat. But a Senate committee report issued in August documented testimony that the Nauru processing center was unsafe, and that people held there were at risk of violence including sexual assault. It called for dropping the detention center curfews and for allowing the news media, as well as human rights investigators, greater access.
Under Mr. Abbott’s successor, Malcolm Turnbull, the offshore detention policy has come under continued criticism. Mr. Turnbull has made prevention of domestic violence a crucial platform since taking office last month, and advocates have used that position to argue that asylum seekers should have the same protections.
Rosie Batty, who was named Australian of the Year for her work campaigning against domestic violence, added her name to a letter last week calling for the centers to be closed.
“Those of us who care about violence against women, children and other vulnerable people at home need to care about what happens to these same people elsewhere who are under our care,” she said in the letter.
“The centers are, by their very design, unsafe and dangerous places,” she added.
Source: NY times