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Human Rights And Social Justice Issues In The Offshore Detention Of Asylum Seekers

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948) outlines 30 human rights that apply to all human beings regardless of race, sex, nationality, or any other characteristic. These human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery, torture, degrading treatment, arbitrary arrest, detention or exile, and most relevantly, the right to seek asylum from persecution in another country (United Nations, 1948). Offshore detention is an initiative by the Australian government to transfer all asylum seekers who travel to Australia by boat, into a detention centre offshore, until their application for refugee status has been approved or denied. Depending upon the outcome, the asylum seekers are then either sent back to the country they sought asylum from, or given legal entry into Australia (Nethery and Holman, 2016). Offshore detention centres have been criticised as being institutions in which there is a very little accountability and in which abuse of human rights and social justice issues are highly prevalent. (Nethery and Holman, 2016). The significant length of time that asylum seekers are kept in detention by the Australian government has been considered a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Henderson, 2014). Another human rights issue that has been raised is that the transfer of asylum seekers from Australia is a violation of the Refugee Convention’s convention against “torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Henderson, 2014, p.1175).

A review of the literature addressing the social justice and human rights issues associated with asylum seekers who have been held in offshore detention centres has been undertaken. The methodology used to conduct the literature review and the key themes identified will be described. A critical analysis of the literature and how it relates to human rights and social justice will then be presented.

The search for literature on offshore detention was conducted using the RMIT library search engine. The initial search of ‘offshore detention’ yielded 21,026 results. The search was then filtered to list only peer reviewed articles which reduced the total to 4,940 results. The search was then limited to publication dates from 2005 onwards which netted 3,254 results. A further narrowing of the search to focus on Australia reduced the results to 236. Finally, the focus was narrowed to ‘asylum seekers’ which resulted in 48 articles.

The title and abstract of these 48 articles were screened to identify ones that would best assist in reviewing the literature on human rights and social justice issues regarding offshore detention and asylum seekers. This produced 15 articles which were highly relevant to the selected topic and the full text of these articles were read. Three key themes were identified: the impact of offshore detention on asylum seekers’ mental health; the difficulties that asylum seekers face living in Australia after been placed in offshore detention centres; and finally, perceptions of asylum seekers coming from offshore detention amongst the broader Australian community. Once these key themes were identified there were five of the fifteen articles that did not fit in with these key themes, leaving ten articles to include in the literature review on offshore detention and asylum seekers. The review is presented under these key themes.

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The impact of offshore detention on asylum seekers’ mental health

A number of studies and articles provide an insight into some of the social justice and human rights violations that are occurring within offshore detention centres. The idea that these centres are at the very least facilitating violence (Procter, 2005) is inhumane and certainly a violation of human rights. Furthermore, the fact that these individuals are being detained at all, let alone in such conditions is a violation to the human rights of unfair detainment and the right to seek a safe place to live as well as taking away their dignity and facilitating inequality (United Nations, 1948). As these articles allude to, the violation of human rights and social justice in offshore detention centres has a direct impact on mental health.

Silove, Austin and Steel (2007) investigated the mental health consequences of asylum seekers being kept in offshore detention centres for long periods of time. They found that there were significant mental health and psychosocial impacts on anyone locked up for that long of a period regardless of demographics such as adults, families or children. They also stated that these mental health and psychosocial impacts can extend to the point where asylum seekers are released and placed into society. Another article from Newman, Dudley and Steel (2008) similarly looking at the relationship between mental health of asylum seekers and offshore detention centres. They claimed that the centres are structured and operated so that there is very little response to, or help for individuals when they are suffering from trauma or seriously struggling with their mental health. They also contend that beyond the psychological harm, detention centres have an adverse impact on child development. According to Newman et al. (2008), there is a great deal of evidence linking mental disorder to asylum seekers being detained in offshore centres and in particular, the length of detention in these centres is associated with asylum seekers’ mental deterioration and suicidality. A paper from Procter (2005) wrote that not only was there an ever-growing mountain of evidence around issues of mental health of asylum seekers and offshore detention policies such as reinterviewing asylum seekers and rejecting their asylum claims on a consistent basis, but also provided an insight into other things that occur in these centres that are risk factors for mental health issue in children in offshore detention centres. These risk factors include separation from parents without prior warning, having consistent interviews with migration officials, having to witness self-harm and having to witness violence. Hassan (2009) conducted a study which looked at the direct mental health outcomes from being detained in an offshore detention centre. Hassan (2009) found that out of ten studies examined, all of them reported significant mental health problems ranging from anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The experiences of asylum seekers living in Australia after being released from offshore detention

A study from McNevin and Correa-Valez (2006) looked at the health and welfare issues that asylum seekers were facing, highlighting the ongoing human rights violations, particularly related to the right to work. The study found that many asylum seekers were being denied work rights and therefore lacked income, which led to issues such as homelessness, worsening of existing health conditions, family breakdown and psychological distress. It was also found that there were various community organisations and welfare agencies to assist asylum seekers facing these issues as best they can. Another study conducted by Fleay, Hartley and Kenny (2013) looked at the experiences of asylum seekers who have been released from offshore detention centres. This study was conducted by interviewing eleven asylum seekers in community-based arrangements. The study found that the right to work was highly important to the participants in restoring self-worth, however some of them found it difficult due to a lack of adequate formal support. While they all had case workers, they were simply not effective. Additionally, the fact that they were not ‘permanent residents was identified to be a deterring factor for potential employers not hiring these individuals. A study from Fleay and Hartley (2016) looked at how the policy of denying asylum seekers the right to work until they are given refugee status impacts upon asylum seekers. The study found that the ability to gain employment and having the right to work is highly important to the mental health of asylum seekers as well as their general wellbeing. It was also found that asylum seekers mental health was also negatively impacted by having to wait for long periods of time with uncertainty around their refugee claims. These studies all had similar conclusions that not only was it highly important to asylum seekers to gain employment, but that it was highly difficult and bordering on impossible to do so. Due to the nature of their release from offshore detention centres it was very easy to be rejected by employers for work. All the studies also found that this had a direct impact on their feelings of self-worth and their mental health. There are clearly social justice and human rights violations in the context of having significant barriers to gaining employment that would not be there if they were not asylum seekers.

The perception of asylum seekers by Australians

A study conducted by McKay, Thomas and Warwick (2011) investigated how the media represented asylum seekers arriving by boat in the five days following the SIEV 36 incident. The SIEV 36 incident involved a boat which was carrying 49 asylum seekers exploding and killing five people on board and injuring many others. The study followed newspaper articles published in the Herald Sun, The Age and The Australian. It was found that these newspapers framed the articles by focusing on terms like ‘illegals’, ‘queue jumpers’, and ‘people smugglers’. The newspapers also suggested that asylum seekers would destroy their boat in order to guarantee passage into Australia which increased the public’s anxiety around the idea of invasion. A second article from Briskman (2015) looks at the way in which asylum seekers and refugees are viewed as a danger by a portion of Australian society due to its inherent fear of invasion. This article contends that these societal perceptions are brought on by media representations in a similar way that McKay, Thomas and Warwick (2011) identified but also stated that government statements labelling asylum seekers as ‘threatening’ and ‘violent’ also held a significant contribution to the attitudes of Australians. Briskman (2015) also identified a lack of assimilation to Australian culture as also negatively impacting Australians perceptions of asylum seekers. Leroy (2019) also points to an inherent fear of invasion and that Australians are becoming Islamophobic as a result of media outlets and government policy creating offshore detention centres to separate Australians from an unknown ‘other’. Leroy (2019) also points out the active use of negative words by media outlets when discussing asylum seekers that seeks to dehumanise them and creates a sense of fear of invasion to Australians. These articles and study all point to a negative perception of asylum seekers due to a media bias playing on paranoia and fear of the Australian public. The use of language has been used effectively to decrease the care and compassion individuals in Australian society would have if media outlets framed the conversation to refer to asylum seekers ‘desperate’ or ‘pursuing safety’. In this way, it can be argued that the media has encouraged Australians to want asylum seekers to be detained in offshore detention centres where they are having their human rights violated on a daily basis. Furthermore, the influence of the media has made Australians push for a lack of social justice and human rights when it comes to asylum seekers as they want them to be separated and not afforded the same privileges and opportunities that Australians are given every day.

Asylum seekers become victims of human rights violations and lack of social justice as soon as they are sent to offshore detention centres in a plethora of ways. Firstly, through their treatment during their time in offshore detention centres and the inhumane conditions that they are forced to live in. Secondly through the structural barriers that are put in place from the moment they step onto Australian shores that make it highly difficult to find employment and as such they are forced to live in similarly difficult circumstances that impact on their mental health and also violate their human rights and are treated without consideration of social justice. Their time in Australia is made even harder by the media portrayal of asylum seekers and the subsequent views of the Australian public of asylum seekers. There were consistent findings in the articles reviewed in relation to human rights violations and social justice issues for asylum seekers being held in offshore detention. The absence of any dissenting points of view seems to indicate that the issues are well understood and agreed upon. Despite this, the government policy of holding asylum seekers in offshore detention continues and the media’s portrayal of asylum seekers continues to have a negative influence on public perceptions of asylum seekers.


  1. Briskman, L, 2015 ‘The Creeping Blight of Islamophobia in Australia’, International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, Vol. 4, No. 3, PP. 112-121.
  2. Fleay, C, Hartley, L, 2016 ‘’I Feel Like a Beggar’: Asylum Seekers Living in the Australian Community Without the Right to Work’, Journal of International Migration and Integration, Vol. 17, No. 4, PP. 1031-1048.
  3. Fleay, C, Hartley, L, Kenny, M, 2013 ‘Refugees and asylum seekers living in the Australian community: the importance of work rights and employment support’, Australian Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 48, No. 4, PP. 473-496
  4. Hassan, R, 2009 ‘Mental health implications of detaining asylum seekers: systematic review’, The British Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 194, No. 4, PP. 306-312.
  5. Henderson, C, 2014, Australia’s Treatment of Asylum Seekers: From Human Rights Violations to Crimes Against Humanity, National Issues, Vol. 12, pp. 1161-1181.
  6. Leroy, M, 2019 ‘Controlling the ever threatening ‘other’’, An International Journal of English Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3, PP. 134-144.
  7. McKay, F.H, Thomas, S.L, Warwick, B.L, 2011 ‘Any one of these boat people could be a terrorist for all we know!’ Media representations and public perceptions of ‘boat people’ arrivals in Australia’, Journalism, Vol. 12, No. 5, PP. 607-626.
  8. McNevin, A, Correa-Velez, I, 2006 ‘Asylum seekers living in the community on Bridging Visa E: Community sector’s response to detrimental policies’, Australian Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 41, No. 1, PP. 125-139.
  9. Nethery, A, Holman, R 2016, ‘Secrecy and human rights abuse in Australia’s offshore immigration detention centres’, International journal of human rights, vol. 20, no. 7, pp. 1018- 1038.
  10. Newman, L, Dudley, M, Steel, Z, 2008 ‘Asylum, Detention, and Mental Health in Australia’, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 3, PP. 110-127.
  11. Procter, N, 2005 ‘They first killed his heart (then) he took his own life’. Part 1: A review of the context and literature on mental health issues for refugees and asylum seekers’, International Journal of Nursing Practice, Vol. 11, No. 6, PP. 286-291.
  12. Silove, D, Austin, P, Steel, Z, 2007 ‘No Refuge from Terror: The Impact of Detention on the Mental Health of Trauma-affected Refugees Seeking Asylum in Australia’, Transcultural Psychiatry, Vol. 44, No. 3, PP. 359-393.
  13. United Nations, 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, URL .

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