Australia Admits Wrongfully Accusing Charity of Inciting Refugees' Self Harm — As It Accuses Others

Australia says it will compensate Save the Children Australia for wrongfully accusing it of encouraging asylum seekers to self harm, days after it levelled similar claims at other groups.
May 6, 2016, 11:00am
Pro-refugees protesters rally outside Immigration Office in Brisbane in February 2015. Photo via EPA

The Australian government has announced it will compensate a charity it blamed for inciting asylum seekers to self-harm during protests at a detention center on the Pacific Island of Nauru, just two days after Immigration Minister Peter Dutton levelled a similar accusation at an unknown organization.

The government's admission and settlement with Save the Children Australia related to an incident in 2014 when several refugees sewed their mouths shut and others drank washing up powder, and follows two self-immolations in recent weeks, leaving one refugee dead and another in critical condition.

Following the 2014 incidents, Australia's then-immigration minister Scott Morrison said the Save The Children Australia's staff were guilty of "coaching," "facilitation," and "coordination" of the protests. His department ordered the removal of 10 of the charity's employees over the protest, and nine were subsequently deported by the government of Nauru.

Two independent reviews into the affair concluded the Australian government's evidence against the charity workers was unsubstantiated.

The Department of Immigration said on Friday it had accepted the recommendations of the most recent independent review, headed by Professor Christopher Doogan, and as a result has agreed a confidential financial settlement with the charity.

Related: Australia Refuses to Take Asylum Seekers as Papua New Guinea Says It Will Close Offshore Center

"The Department also recognizes that (Save the Children Australia) has suffered detriment for which — to adopt the words of Professor Doogan — the payment of money cannot be adequate compensation," the department said in a statement.

Australia's offshore asylum seeker detention camps on Nauru and Manus island in Papua New Guinea have come under a renewed spotlight recently after Papua New Guinea announced it would close the Manus immigration center, because detaining people who had committed no crime breached the country's constitution. Australia said it would not take any of the more than 800 asylum seekers detained there.

The centers have been condemned by observers for years for harsh conditions and reports of widespread assault, sexual violence, and systemic child abuse. They are off-limits to journalists.

On Monday, a 21-year-old Somali woman set herself alight at the camp in Nauru. She remains in a critical condition.

It was the second case of self-immolation at the camp in a week. A 23-year-old Iranian man died from burns after setting himself alight last week.

Immigration minister Dutton implied on Tuesday that NGOs and activists were inciting the protests. "I have previously expressed my frustration and anger at advocates and others who are in contact with those in regional processing centers and who are encouraging some of these people to behave in a certain way, believing that that pressure exerted on the Australian government will see a change in our policy in relation to our border protection measures," he said, adding that such attempts would have no chance of working, reported ABC.

The Australian government has previously suggested that self-harm by asylum seekers is an attempt to reach Australia due to the need for medical treatment, and has stressed it will not work. Under the country's hardline policy, all asylum seekers intercepted trying to reach Australia after paying people smugglers are sent for processing to the offshore camps, and are never resettled in Australia.

Mat Tinkler, director of public affairs and policy at Save the Child Australia, said it was "ironic" that the immigration minister had blamed unnamed organizations for encouraging the latest self-harm protests, after the government had been forced to backtrack over its accusations against his own charity.

Related: Australia's Offshore Asylum Seeker Detention Center Is Ruled Illegal

Controversies arising from Australia's hardline immigration policy have become a major headache for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during campaigning for likely July elections.

The current policy was put in place by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2013, who stated no asylum seeker arriving by boat would ever settle in Australia, and made a deal with Papua New Guinea to expand the Manus center, give the country aid money, and pay "resettlement costs" for genuine refugees. However only eight of more than 1,000 asylum seekers who have been held at the Manus camp have moved into the PNG community, reported the Sydney Morning Herald.

In 2015 Australia made another deal with Cambodia, pledging $55 million of aid in return for the resettlement of hundreds of refugees — but only two have been successfully resettled there.

Australia spent about $1.1 billion Australian dollars between 2014 and 2015 on the two PNG centers. The government has also released ad campaigns warning no one who gets on a boat without a visa will ever make Australia home. "Families, children, unaccompanied children, educated, and skilled. There are no exceptions," explains a military general.

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Related: United Nations Condemns Australia Over 'Inhuman' Treatment of Asylum Seekers