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Detainees Protest at Australian Offshore Detention Center

Nauru, Australia
Nauru, Australia

Rights groups say asylum seekers at an Australian-run detention center on the Pacific island of Nauru are continuing to protest against refugee policies. Activists say some inmates have sewn their lips together and drunk detergent, while one man reportedly cut his own throat in protest at Canberra’s plans to deny detainees resettlement visas in Australia.

Refugee campaigners say there is anger and dismay among asylum seekers detained on Nauru after Australia confirmed they would not be allowed to apply for Temporary Protection Visas, or TPVs.

The permits will only apply to asylum seekers currently held in immigration camps in Australia, or those who have been released on bridging visas into the community. Inmates in offshore processing centers on Nauru or Papua New Guinea will not be eligible.

Activists claim the ruling has triggered demonstrations on Nauru, with various cases of self-harm reported, including a young girl who has reportedly swallowed detergent, and a man who cut his own throat. Others have apparently sewn their lips together.

Ian Rintoul, from the Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney, said tensions are high on Nauru.

“The mood is not good. I think you can only describe it as desperate and despairing. So you have got protests that have been happening now for five days inside the detention center and amongst the people who have actually been released as refugees,” said Rintoul.

Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison has yet to respond publicly to allegations of self-harm on Nauru. It is standard government policy to refuse to divulge information about such incidents.

Canberra is seeking to reintroduce Temporary Protection Visas and is seeking support for its plans in the Australian parliament.

Critics say that TPVs will condemn asylum seekers, who mainly come from countries in South Asia and the Middle East, to an uncertain life in limbo.

But Morrison said the system will provide security for thousands of people.

“TPVs will be granted to for a maximum of three years and will provide access to Medicare, social security benefits and work rights as occurred under the Howard government. TPVs will provide refugees with stability and a chance to get on with their lives while at the same time guaranteeing that people smugglers do not have permanent protection visa product to sell to those who are travelling illegally to Australia,” said Morrison.

After three years, refugees must re-apply for the temporary visas, at which time officials will reassess the situation in their home countries before determining if they remain eligible for the program.

Last week, Canberra struck a multi-million deal with Cambodia to resettle refugees in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation. Other agreements have seen asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat transferred to offshore processing camps in the South Pacific. Ministers say the policy is deterring other asylum seekers, while the military has also been brought in to turn refugee boats away from Australian waters.

Australia grants refugee visas to about 13,000 people annually under various international accords.