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Australia rejects Amnesty's torture claim for refugees detained on Nauru

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David Gray/Reuters

(Read caption) Claire Mallinson, the National Director of Amnesty International Australia, holds a copy of the rights group's report titled 'Island of Despair: Australia's "Processing" of Refugees on Nauru' during its official launch in Sydney, Australia, Tuesday.

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On Tuesday the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull denied the claims made in a new Amnesty International report that describes the condition’s at Australia’s refugee detainment center on the island nation of Nauru as an “open air prison.”

The United Nations and numerous human rights organizations have called for the Australian government stop outsourcing refugee processing to detainment centers on the island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. But as new evidence of widespread physical and psychological abuse, inadequate medical and mental health care, and poor living conditions began surfacing in August that human rights groups say amounts to a form of systemic torture, the government’s denial has continued.

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"I reject that claim totally, it is absolutely false," Mr. Turnbull told an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) radio program Tuesday. "The Australian government's commitment is compassionate and it is strong."

Michael Pezzullo, who heads Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), also denied the claims.

"I refute categorically, both on behalf of my own department and by way of explaining government policy in this regard," Mr. Pezzullo said in an interview with ABC News. "It's not the Australian government's position nor the position of this department that we flout any laws, international or otherwise."

The policy of holding refugees offshore was strengthened in 2013 in order to discourage migrants from attempting to reach Australia's shores by boat, a dangerous crossing that killed 1,900 asylum seekers between 2000 and late 2013. The majority of these deaths occurred during a period when offshore processing was not practiced, according to the Melbourne-based Border Crossing Observatory.

In August, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released a report detailing the abuse of refugees in the detention centers based off of interviews with 84 asylum seekers, including children, and service providers by two human rights workers who were able to gain access to the detention centers for 12 days. DIBP denied these allegations and criticized the human rights organizations for not contacting the department before the report was published.

A few days after the report was released The Guardian published thousands of leaked incident reports written by detention center staff on Nauru between 2013 and 2015. The reports detail assault, aggressive behavior, non-compliance, and detainees threatened self-harm.

DIBP said in a statement that Nauru police were investigating the allegations and that the Australian government "takes seriously its role in supporting the government of Nauru to protect children from abuse, neglect or exploitation." Adding that "the Department currently has no evidence to suggest that service providers have under-reported or mis-reported incidents in Nauru."

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The lack of reported incidence may be because under the Australian Border Force Act of 2015, it is a criminal offense for DIBP employees to report what occurs at detention centers to the media. Additionally, human rights groups and journalists have historically been denied visas to the island nations where the centers are held.

While progress has been slow on Nauru, Peter O’Neill, prime minister of Papua New Guinea (PNG), has said the country reached an agreement this summer with the Australian government to close the refugee center on PNG's Manus Island, although he did not yet have a plan for what would be done with the 854 men currently housed at the center.

"Asylum claims are not processed in a fair, transparent or expedient manner, at a significant cost to detainees' physical and mental health," Human Rights Watch wrote of the Manus Island detention center. "There are reports of physical and sexual abuse of detainees. Recent hunger strikes on Manus Island point to the poor conditions endured by asylum seekers and the uncertainty they face because of prolonged refugee status determination procedures."