Author Archives: Kate Cyr

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: On the History & Legality of Detention Centres

Fencing surrounding Australia’s Christmas Island Detention Centre, which held nearly 200 detainees as of November 2015

Fencing surrounding Australia’s Christmas Island Detention Centre, which held nearly 200 detainees as of November 2015

It’s official: Australia’s “Stop the Boats” campaign is a success. Or so the government claims. Back in 2013, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott ascended to his post in part because of his pledge to “stop the boats,” or, in less catchy rhetoric, to prevent asylum seekers – mostly arriving by sea from the Middle East and Asia – from reaching Australia. Instead, they are either resettled in Cambodia or detained indefinitely in centres in Australia, on Nauru, and on Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Manus Island. In return, Australia offers these countries aid money and pays their legal fees. As of November 2015, over 2,000 people were in Australian immigration-related detention facilities, 436 of whom had been held for over 2 years, with an additional 1,469 residing in third-country centres.

The measures are meant to deter irregular immigration and the dangers of boat crossings, yet desperate people fleeing countries like Iran, Vietnam, and Afghanistan continue to seek asylum in Australia. The detention centres are “cramped, hot and unhygienic…[with] limited access to water.” Physical and sexual abuse is common; children – including unaccompanied minors – are locked away with inadequate medical care; and violence is a regular reality. The frequency of suicide attempts and protests in the centres speak to their horrific conditions. Doctors and staff who work in the centres even face imprisonment for advocating on behalf of detainees. This is all illegal under international – but not Australian – law.

Here, I offer a glimpse into the history and legality of such centres vis-à-vis the Australian case, with three disclaimers. First, Abbott’s anti-“boat people” program is not new to Australia, but began in 1992 under PM Paul Keating. Second, Australia is not wholly anti-immigrant – it admits 200,000 immigrants and settles over 13,000 refugees every year. These policies only target asylum seekers arriving by sea. Finally, Australia is not the only country to have detention camps for would-be refugees (Camp Moria on Lesvos Island is another example).

Concentration camp, detention centre, and internment camp are different names for the same concept: “A camp where persons are confined, usually without hearings and typically under harsh conditions, often as a result of their membership in a group the government has identified as suspect.” In the case of Australia, the suspect group are boat people; during the Second World War, for Americans, they were people of Japanese descent, and for Germans the Jewish population; and in North Korea, the persons are critics of the state.

As the system of laws, norms, and treaties that currently governs global politics was still in its infancy, states were able to imprison “undesirable” people easily. The first camps were set up in the late 19th century by the Spanish Crown in Cuba to contain peasant guerillas and the detention centres constructed by the British to detain Boers and southern Africans during the Boer Wars. Often, governments carried out what would now be considered egregious human rights abuses by stripping people of citizenship or their humanity, labeling groups as a security threat, and/or simply building secluded, inaccessible internment facilities.

Thanks to the advent of technologies like television, mobile phones, and social media, the plight of those currently in camps is harder to ignore than in the past. Given the history of brutality associated with internment camps, international organizations like the UN have set up legislation and treaties to prevent their use.

For example, the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating the Status of Refugees enshrines the right to asylum, including access to courts, housing, and employment – and, most importantly for Australia’s asylum seekers, freedom from “penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence.” Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly states, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile;” Article 13 offers the right to freedom of movement; Article 14 guarantees “the right to see and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution;” and Articles 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 10, 15, 25, 28 offer protection against the degradation of dignity, nationality, free trial, asylum, and other rights that have been violated by the actions of Australia and other governments using similar detention centres for asylum seekers and those deemed security risks. The UN’s Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (Opcat) takes these measures a step further for detainees, requiring “UN inspections of immigration detention centres.” These are just a few of many conventions, treaties, and norms that protect asylum seekers and people in detention without trial.

Countries like Australia often have national laws against degrading treatment, making such detentions illegal on multiple levels. How, then, do such camps persist? States can choose to ignore domestic and global outcry at their actions; bypass UN conventions, resolutions, and international norms (which are secondary to national law); use other nations as third parties for detention; and, of course, countries are free to legislate their own standards. The United States, in setting up a facility for the detention of untried, suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, utilized all four of these approaches. Australia has acted similarly towards asylum seekers: it ignores protests by its own people; refuses to ratify Opcat; organized offshore centres; and has changed its own laws – ruled constitutional by its highest court – to allow overseas detention of asylum seekers.

What hope can Australia’s asylum seekers possibly posses against such a rich, powerful nation? Many appeal to international public opinion for help or launch lawsuits against the government. If the wave of anti-detention sentiment gains enough force, it may be able to capsize Australia’s discriminatory policies. Already, asylum seekers have achieved some success – and not the kind trumpeted by the government – while contending detention on Nauru and Manus Island. Perhaps their strategy can usher in a new tide of humane treatment for asylum seekers not just in Australia, but the world over.

In the meantime, learn about your country’s internment and detention camp policies. The Global Detention Project offers information on many countries’ centres. For UK readers, I also suggest Standoff Film’s documentary “Campsfield House: An Immigration Removal Centre.”

Read All About It (Or Not): The Trouble with the Turkish Press

Istanbul’s 2013 Gezi Park protests unearthed muddy tales of corruption, bias, and authoritarianism that powerful conglomerates and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would have preferred buried indefinitely. The government received global scrutiny as anyone from students to grandmothers gathered in the streets to demonstrate against the AKP’s increasingly undemocratic actions, including silencing the press.

In the years since, the Syrian crisis, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strong-handed foreign policy, and religious issues have dominated coverage of Turkey abroad – leaving important issues like press freedom and related human rights violations once again shrouded in silence. Yet the political biases of Turkish media deserve scrutiny by Turkish and international audiences alike. Amidst the crises of the region, misreporting and bias convolutes the information reaching the public and can have very real implications for the understanding and response to various issues. The stories of daily paper Sabah and the press treatment of the Kurdish minority both offer warnings of the damage Turkey’s biased press machinery can cause.

Sabah, a daily newspaper founded in 1985, is telling of the complex and often hidden ways in which press freedom is stifled in Turkey – and just how deeply corporate and government meddling runs in the industry. After displeasing government officials in 2007, the paper was seized over an alleged misfiling of merger and acquisition paperwork six years before. The state sold the daily to a company owned by then-Prime Minister Erdoğan’s son-in-law using state-subsidized funds, allowing the government to effectively control Sabah’s content.

When this was uncovered during Turkey’s December 2013 anti-corruption protests, the holding company quickly sold Sabah’s owner, Turkuvaz Media, to another conglomerate, Kalyon Group. Selling to Kalyon was supposed to wipe the government’s fingerprints from the pages of Sabah, but the group, also involved in construction, energy, and infrastructure, won a government contract to build Istanbul’s new airport, as well as controversial projects in downtown Istanbul’s Taksim Square. The journalist that exposed the shady underworld of Turkey’s media in the New York Times was immediately fired by Sabah.

While Sabah serves as a particularly twisted example of the incest among corporate, political, and media interests, its case is not unique. Most media in Turkey is of the polarized political model, meaning papers are closely tied to certain political parties and views. Popular newspaper Hürriyet, for example, is a secular, anti-government paper, while Zaman is a religious, though also anti-government outlet. These biases transmit skewed information that affects civil society’s understanding of and reaction to issues. The media is a battleground for politics, allowing giant corporations to leverage their money and influence to alter the political landscape in Turkey. As Turkey begins another year full of political turmoil, refugee crises, and terrorist threats, disconnect and confusion in the public will further divide groups and politicians on Turkey’s policy.

The case of the Kurds, a minority group numbering about 15 million within Turkey who have been systematically denied group rights since the creation of the Turkish state, has already demonstrated the dangers of a heavily politicized press. One group of Kurds, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has waged a guerilla war for autonomy and independence against the government since 1984. The press uses the actions of this group to report on Kurdish issues from whatever angle they see fit – often painting Kurds as a whole as violent and using the effects of the PKK’s violence to polarize the public to suit their political aims.

The 2011 Şırnak bombing of Kurdish civilians smuggling goods like tires and cigarettes between Turkey and Iraq to survive, was warped to justify not only the government’s actions but the persecution against all Kurds in the fight against the PKK. Anti-government daily Hürriyet took a stance more sympathetic towards civilians while religious newspaper Zaman offered few, though mostly factual articles, and Sabah predictably mirrored the government line. Meanwhile, all three newspapers’ international English language editions defended the government. The readership of each newspaper would have received information about the bombing in such a way as to harden their own political views – and international audiences would have been baldly missing information that uncovered the government’s mistake. The bias of each paper shaped their audience’s understanding along their own political lines.

The media continues to ignore and justify the government’s actions towards Kurdish communities. The hardships of Kurdish areas under stringent curfews and facing cuts to vital services are passed off as part of legitimate anti-terrorism measures without further examination, and external observers are barred from the area. The 200,000 people affected by these measures have limited ways to seek help. In January, someone who tried to speak out about these issues on a chat show was arrested. The Kurds are playing a more and more pivotal role in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), and their treatment in the Turkish media can have a deep effect on how the Turkish public, and accordingly, its elected government, treats these potential allies. The history of the conflict makes a deep relationship difficult, but uniting forces against a common threat is easily hindered by voices shaming a population for the actions of a few.

The international community still offers Turkey’s media bias some attention amidst the other crises it currently handles when dealing with Turkey. However, it focuses on the explicit violations of press freedom, like the jailing of editors and journalists for anti-government rhetoric or reporting. International actors are not pressuring Turkey to change the shady dealings of corporations and politics that color important interactions in the civil sphere. In the war of information occurring in the country, these dealings can have an impact beyond the borders and into the sphere of international relations.

Staying informed about extreme measures, such as the curfews in the southeast and other violations of international law, is hampered by a wash of political information that skews stories and clouds reality. To win the support of the Turkish people, offer less biased information domestically and internationally, and ensure that Turkey is able to hold on to the shreds of the democratic ideals it has left, the international community should be paying more attention to the Turkish press. In the meantime, if you are interested in understanding the complex state of Turkish politics, I suggest you turn to Twitter, where groups like 140journos use the platform for citizen-led, non-political reporting.

*Article originally published by the St Andrews Economist*