The outcome of the summit is predetermined and set to disappoint since it establishes no new obligation on member states.
On the 19th of September, The UN General Assembly will host a high-level summit to address large movements of refugees and migrants. Last July, member states agreed on a pre-summit draft declaration to be adopted in New York. The declaration reads as a long preamble that leads to nothing and it is so by design. After states failed in July to agree on a system of overall accountability, establishing collective goals, or a formal responsibility-sharing agreement or structure, they instead had the declaration recommend launching intergovernmental negotiations towards adoption of a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration in 2018. The outcome of the summit is predetermined and set to disappoint since it establishes no new obligation on member states. As we wait for 2018, perhaps there is something to be gained from the gathering itself. State officials, NGO representative, and UN should take the opportunity to name and shame states and their practices that actively violate human rights and cause great harm to refugees and migrants.
For all that is left out or rendered in a vague language in the declaration, it does start by affirming that all refugees and migrants, regardless of status; are rights holders; that migrants “make positive and profound contributions to economic and social development in their host societies and to global wealth creation”, and in it, a pledge to support a global campaign to counter xenophobia, to be proposed by the UN Secretary-General. As a preamble, it is good.
However, when it comes to policies that criminalize cross-border movements or have a possible unintended negative consequence, and when it comes to encouraging alternatives to detention and guidelines on the humane treatment of migrants, they are all preceded by “we will consider”. By far, the weakest language in a document filled with soft language. It leaves no hope of relief for those suffering indefinitely in detention for no crime other than being a migrant or a refugee.
This suffering could not be more apparent than in the recently published 2,000 leaked incident reports from Australia’s detention camp for asylum seekers on the remote Pacific island of Nauru. The Nauru files lays bare the assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm attempts, child abuse and horrid living conditions endured by asylum seekers held by the Australian government. While children made up only about 18% of those in detention on Nauru during the time covered by the reports, they are over-represented in the reports with a total of 1,086 incidents, or 51.3% of the incidents involving children. The Nauru files are a harrowing read as you learn of a young classroom helper who requested a four-minute shower instead of a two-minute shower and her request was approved on the condition that the guard watch her shower, a girl who sewn her lips together and the guard who saw her and began laughing at her, a child under the age of 10 who undressed and invited a group of adults to insert their fingers into her vagina. The files also show a systematic lack of processes to deal with sexual violence and threats with disturbing reports ranging from a man facing threats of sexual violence from other asylum seekers to a woman threatening self-harm because she doesn’t want “men to touch her body”. Perhaps most tragically, the files attest to the immense trauma and self-harm caused by prolonged detention, especially to children. A publication by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2016 concluded that children who had spent several months in Nauru are amongst the most traumatised children the paediatricians have ever seen.
Australia is unfortunately not alone in designing an asylum system that was described by an Australian politician and the chief immigration psychiatrist as a system designed to break refugees and make them suffer.
“Every day they told me, I will be deported… they may not physically beat you, but they bully you mentally everyday… to me, it was like Guantanamo bay” says an asylum seeker who was locked up for a year and a half for seeking asylum in Japan. Japan’s prison like migration detention center held more than 13,600 people in 2014; most have committed no crime. They are locked up for up to 15 hours a day. 12 people have died in immigration detention in Japan since 2006, including four suicides. In 2015, 14 detainees tried to kill or harm themselves at the detention center according to data from the facility. After the death of an asylum seeker from Sri Lanka, there are serious allegations of misconduct and neglect in medical treatments.
Endangering the health and well-being of people by detaining them is unnecessary. Community-based alternatives do exist and are more dignified for migrants, more cost-effective for states, and, unlike what politicians may want you to believe, have a high compliance rates with proceedings (i.e., appear for interviews and court hearings).
When it comes to immigration, there is no state without sin enough to cast the first stone. It is, however, unethical to not shame states with asylum systems build to cause suffering and torture in the name of diplomacy or consensus. With 51% Japanese in favor of immigration in 2015 and Australians waking up to the harrowing reality of asylum seekers, there is a real possibility of positive change if they are named and shamed in UN summit. Even if it does not lead to a positive change, trivializing or ignoring it may lead other states to copy their practices as in the case of Denmark. As UN declaration proves to be no savior, we must not stay silent as inhumane practices are called “best in the world”.