A woman raped in Australia's offshore detention center on the Pacific island of Nauru is being refused the chance to travel to Australia for an abortion, while a 23-year-old Iranian refugee named Omid has died two days after setting himself alight in protest at his treatment at the same facility.
The latest reports come amid renewed pressure on Australia to justify its harsh and widely criticized immigration policy, which sees anyone intercepted while trying to reach the country by boat sent for processing to camps in Nauru — currently holding 500 people — and Manus Island — which holds about 850. Those held in detention there are never eligible to be resettled in Australia.
On Friday, lawyers for the asylum seekers held on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) said on Friday they planned to seek potentially billions of dollars in compensation, following a decision by PNG's supreme court which ruled the center there illegal.
The resulting closure of the Manus facility — which holds asylum seekers fleeing violence in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and South Asia — has the two South Pacific neighbors at loggerheads at a politically sensitive time for Australia. Each says responsibility for the detainees' welfare rests with the other. The number trying to reach Australia is small compared with Europe, but immigration has long been a sensitive political issue.
Australian officials are now preparing to travel to PNG for emergency talks.
A senior Australian immigration official argued in a federal court on Friday that an African woman currently on Nauru, named only as S99, should not be allowed travel to Australia to get an abortion and have her suspected epilepsy treated.
When asked in court whether the woman's case was exceptional, immigration official David Nockels said that while aspects were "broadly exceptional," he didn't think it was enough to merit her being moved to Australia.
The woman was raped after she fell unconscious during a seizure, and she cannot get an abortion on Nauru because it is illegal there.
Meanwhile, Omid's wife criticized the medical response given to her husband, saying he was airlifted to Queensland from Nauru almost 24 hours after he set himself on fire on Wednesday.
International advocacy group Human Rights Watch described the death as "senseless" and a result of "Australia's inhumane refugee policies."
Confirmation of Omid's death came as about 200 protesters, flanked by dozens of police, marched through central Sydney carrying signs and chanting slogans such as "refugees are welcome here."
Catherine Stubberfield, spokesperson for UNHCR's regional representation in Australian capital Canberra, has called the current policy of offshore processing and prolonged detention "immensely harmful," while calling the system "untenable."
Those detained on Manus Island and Nauru "have already been through a great deal, many have fled war and persecution, some have already suffered trauma," she told VICE News.
"The situation of these people has deteriorated progressively over time, as UNHCR has witnessed firsthand over several visits since the opening of the centers," Stubberfield said. "The consensus among medical experts is that conditions of detention and offshore processing do immense damage to physical and mental health."
"These people continue to be Australia's responsibility, and Australia needs to be part of any solution moving forward. Refugees and asylum-seekers should ordinarily be processed in the country where they seek asylum. Where, however, transfer arrangements are used, it is an ongoing responsibility of both states to ensure the individual's rights are respected and durable solutions are provided within a reasonable time. These people have been left in limbo for up to four years with no future, despite the fact that most have been recognized as refugees."
The harsh conditions and reports of systemic child abuse at the camps have drawn wide criticism inside and outside Australia and have become a major headache for Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during campaigning for July national elections.
Turnbull has warned against being "misty-eyed" over immigration while Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton reiterated on Friday there would be no policy change. Dutton suggested one option was to transfer those held on PNG to the Nauru facility.
On Friday, New Zealand also repeated an earlier offer to accept 150 of the refugees but that was again rejected. "Settlement in a country like New Zealand would be used by the people smugglers as a marketing opportunity," Turnbull told Australian radio.
Lawyers in PNG will go the country's supreme court on Monday to argue for the immediate release of Manus Island detainees to Australia, as well compensation for their detention.
The legal action has support, at least in part, from PNG's High Commissioner to Australia, Charles Lepani, who said on Thursday responsibility for what to do with the detainees rested with Canberra.
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