The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs. Mary Robinson, requested Justice P.N. Bhagwati, Regional Advisor for Asia and the Pacific, to visit and report on the treatment of asylum seekers in detention in Australia in 2002, specifically focussing on the Woomera IRPC in South Australia. This report focused on ‘…the human rights issues related to the conditions of detention and the treatment of persons in the immigration facilities…’ (Bhagwati, 2008). Under ‘General Impression’ the first paragraph of the report reads as follows:
Justice Bhagwati was considerably distressed by what he saw and heard in Woomera. He met men, women and children who had been in detention for several months, some of them even for one or two years. They were prisoners without having committed any offence. Their only fault was that they had left their native home and sought to find refuge or a better life on the Australian soil. In virtual prison-like conditions in the detention centre, they lived initially in the hope that soon their incarceration will come to an end, but with the passage of time, the hope gave way to despair…He felt that he was in front of a great human tragedy. He saw young boys and girls, who instead of breathing the fresh air of freedom, were confined behind spiked iron bars…these children were growing up in an environment which affected their physical and mental growth and many of them were traumatised and led to harm themselves in utter despair.
The Australian government’s response to UN concerns about our treatment and indefinite mandatory detention of asylum seekers was absolutely zero. The UN had no influence at all over our practices, and still does not.
To all those who take comfort from the lie that the UN will watch over asylum seekers we send to Malaysia and ensure they are not criminalized and treated inhumanely, can you explain why the UN has greater powers in that country than it does here, or anywhere else in the world?
The UN has no power to control what nations do to asylum seekers. Of all countries, we should be aware of that. The government continues to lie in the most bare-faced fashion about the UN’s influence in Malaysia, in order to justify sending asylum seekers into an unsafe situation.
Next time a politician or anyone else says the UN will supervise the treatment of asylum seekers from Australia, ask them how, and remind whoever is making that claim that the UN can’t stop us indefinitely detaining them, and driving them mad in appalling conditions.
The UN has no teeth in these situations. It is a disgraceful falsehood to pretend otherwise.