Protesters chant at a Liberal Party fundraiser in Sydney on November 10, 2017, as they call on the ruling Liberal coalition government to bring back 600 refugees from an Australian detention centre in Papua New Guinea. Photo: AFP/William West
Protesters chant at a Liberal Party fundraiser in Sydney on November 10, 2017, as they call on the ruling Liberal coalition government to bring back 600 refugees from an Australian detention centre in Papua New Guinea. Photo: AFP/William West

The party that will probably form the next Australian government is likely to overhaul the country’s contentious policy on the treatment of asylum seekers, which has been labeled inhumane by some refugee advocates.

Delegates to the Labor Party’s annual conference, which starts on December 16, will consider changes in a review system that could give thousands of rejected applicants, mostly from Asia or the Middle East, a second chance to be accepted for resettlement in Australia. They also want to speed up the assessment process and possibly increase humanitarian intake.

This comes as legal advocacy group, the National Justice Project, launches two High Court class actions on behalf of more than 1,000 people who are still in processing centers on Nauru or were left stranded on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island after a detention facility there closed late last year.

NJP director George Newhouse, a leading human rights lawyer, said the lawsuits will allege that refugees and asylum seekers detained on Nauru and Manus Island were subjected to “torture, crimes against humanity and the intentional infliction of harm by the Australian government.”

“This is our chance to showcase the government’s systematic program of abuse — the inadequate food and shelter, the lack of medical care, the assaults and sexual abuse, the psychological torture,” Newhouse said.

Asylum seekers stand behind a fence in the Oscar compound at the Manus Island detention center in Papua New Guinea. Photo: AFP via AAP Image/Eoin Blackwell

The detainees will apply for an injunction halting alleged breaches of the duty of care by Australian authorities. They will say they have experienced arbitrary imprisonment and other severe deprivations of physical liberty, a denial of proper medical assessment and treatment, inadequate security and protection, inadequate food and water and inadequate accommodation and an unhygienic environment.

It will be contended that this treatment has inflicted severe mental and physical pain, and they will seek an unspecified amount of damages.

Most of the detainees have already been given refugee status and were assessed as having a legitimate claim to be granted asylum, but the ruling Liberal-Nationals government refuses to settle them in Australia because this might be seen as weakening its tough stance on asylum seekers.

Mandatory offshore detention and turning back asylum seekers arriving by boat are the two central planks of a tough policy that the coalition has taken to elections since the early 1990s. But it has lost support ahead of the next poll, due by May 2019, following reports of children suffering severe mental stress on Nauru and being denied treatment in Australia.

Twelve people have died in the detention centers since they were opened almost six years ago in place of facilities within Australia. The deaths were variously attributed to suicides, untreated medical conditions and murder.

Anti-refugee protesters march with posters and Australian flags during pro and anti-refugee rallies in Eltham, Melbourne, November 5, 2016. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake

Medical relief agency Médecins Sans Frontières was forced out of Nauru in October, ending its free psychological and psychiatric services for the detainees, after criticizing the standards of healthcare on the island. The organization said the refugees’ mental situation was “beyond desperate”, with more than one-third of its patients having tried to kill themselves.

In a capitulation, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said that all remaining children will be transferred to Australian facilities by Christmas time. But the Liberals’ right wing refuses to allow adults to be brought there as well.

Australia claims that it has no legal responsibility for the fate of detainees, as the two host countries, Nauru and Papua New Guinea, are in control of day-to-day living arrangements. However, the class suits will argue that memorandums of understanding prove that Australia has always been in charge of contracting terms and operations, as well as all associated costs.

Lawyers will probably also cite a separate lawsuit lodged by nearly 2,000 current and former Manus Island detainees in September 2017 over what they termed their illegal detention in dangerous conditions. The refugees and asylum seekers won a payout of A$70 million (now US$50.3 million).

Individual detainees have also submitted legal cases for urgent medical transfers that usually go against authorities. In the first quarter of 2018-19, the government spent US$345 million on unsuccessful legal defenses.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has pledged to reduce the annual permanent immigration cap. Photo: AFP

Since October alone, the government has been ordered to bring 130 people, including 45 children, to Australia for urgent medical treatment. Some of the children were expected to die within days if left on Nauru.

Independent legislators tried last week to push through a bill that would allow critically ill refugees and asylum seekers on the two islands to be brought to Australia for medical care if two doctors agreed, but ran out of time before the parliamentary year ended. It may be revived in January.

The class suit, the largest of its kind, could ultimately be settled out of court, as Labor — which leads the coalition in all opinion polls in the lead-up to the election — realizes that public opinion on the issue is shifting.

Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Center, said that after nearly six years of “unmitigated cruelty to innocent people” Australia was finally rediscovering its moral compass on human rights.

“There’s a palpable sense that this has all gone too far, for too long. People want change, and there is now a strong coalition of conscience in the parliament willing to act. Morrison and his government tried to run from that reality last week, but the nation will not let them hide,” he said.

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