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Australia’s offshore refugee policy has failed | Refugees

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Conducting Amnesty International’s investigation on Nauru, one of the island nations where Australia sends its unwanted refugees, I felt furious and desperate.

I was furious to see hundreds of women, men and children subjected to physical and psychological harm that could only be characterised as torture: They were attacked, held in inhumane conditions, deprived of vital medical help and driven to insanity, self-harm and suicide. On Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea, my colleagues witnessed a similarly shocking situation.

I felt desperate because, despite overwhelming evidence of the abuse, for years Australian authorities continued to claim – with no evidence – that the policy of sending asylum seekers to remote offshore locations is the only way to save lives by deterring people from trying to reach Australia’s shores. They did not seem prepared to move an inch.

Yet the work of a formidable alliance of people detained on Manus and Nauru, international and Australian civil society organisations, investigative journalists, as well as Australian human rights lawyers, might finally be bearing fruit.

Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government suffered an unprecedented defeat, as Parliament passed a law making it easier for refugees from offshore locations to receive medical treatment in Australia. This may not sound like a ground-breaking development, particularly since the government now intends to reopen a detention centre on the Australian territory of Christmas Island.

But the law’s significance is clear when you consider that for years, Australia’s ministry of immigration refused to transfer even critically ill patients from Manus and Nauru to Australia – saying it would be easier for them to get legal assistance and stay in the country.

On Nauru, in 2016, I spoke to an elderly man who was briefly evacuated to Australia after suffering a heart attack. He was promptly sent back to the island against the doctor’s advice – and subsequently suffered another heart attack, as the doctors had feared.

I interviewed other refugees suffering from cancer, diabetes, untreated fractures, gynaecological problems and many other conditions, none of which could be treated on the island – and all of them were refused a transfer for treatment. That is not to mention those, including children, who suffered from such serious mental health issues that they were repeatedly trying to kill themselves or ended up locked up in an improvised mental hospital – but again, not allowed treatment in Australia.

On Manus Island, an Iranian asylum-seeker, Hamid Khazaei, died because Australian officials ignored the pleas of his doctors for his immediate transfer to receive medical care on the mainland.

The new law will literally save lives. And it is another sign that Australia’s long-standing “offshore detention” policy is slowly being whittled away as it is exposed, time and again, for what it is: a vicious attack on people for the simple act of having sought sanctuary.

Only a few weeks ago, the government of Australia confirmed that all children would be leaving Nauru. Several hundred refugees have already settled in the United States under a deal signed between the two countries. One after the other, companies that the Australian government relied on to run its offshore detention system withdrew, and finding new ones proved to be hard as businesses worried about the reputational damage from complicity in such blatant abuse.

Perhaps equally significant is the international recognition of the very people that the Australian government tried to make invisible, delegitimise, silence, and deprive of agency and hope.

One is Kurdish Iranian writer Behrouz Boochani, a refugee on Manus, who earlier this month won the $25,000 non-fiction prize at the Victorian premier’s literary award, as well as the $100,000 Victorian prize for literature. No Friend but the Mountains was his first book, which he wrote by text messages from the detention centre on the island.

The other is Behrouz’s fellow detainee from Manus Island, Sudanese human rights defender Abdul Aziz Muhamat, who last week won the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights. Aziz has worked continuously to advocate for humane living conditions and adequate medical care on Manus, including through mass peaceful protests.

All of these developments indicate that the Australian government’s “offshore detention” policy has utterly failed. The only way to avoid further suffering for the refugees and shame for the country is to put a decisive end to it, accept responsibility, and do everything possible to rebuild hundreds of lives affected by years of abuse.

There is also an important lesson here for other countries who might be looking at Australia’s policy as an example of how to stoke fear about – and among – people seeking safety. Such policies may seem like a quick win with some domestic constituencies, but they are not wins in the long run. Ultimately they are inhumane, unlawful, unsustainable, costly, and damaging to a country’s reputation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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Ottawa families give mixed reviews for online schooling

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So, how’s it going with online school? Families reached by CBC Ottawa seem to have mixed reviews. 

Masuma Khan is a mother of two. Her seven-year-old, Hana Wyndham in Grade 2, is attending French immersion virtual school. Masuma is grateful it’s an option, but can’t help notice a lot of down time.

“There’s a lot of, ‘are you on mute?’ In terms of the amount of learning that’s actually happening, it does seem to be not that high,” said Masuma.

Parents who kept their children at home this fall are in the minority, but they still form a significant chunk of families in Ottawa.

In the city’s largest school board, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), about 27 per cent of elementary students and 22 per cent of high school students chose online learning. The Ottawa Catholic School Board says roughly a quarter of its students are online.

For Masuma, the decision to keep her daughter home was complex: extended family members are immunocompromised and she worried the in-person learning environment would be unpleasant because of precautions. She also felt her daughter might benefit from being supported at home.

“She doesn’t necessarily enjoy school. I also found out during the pandemic that she was being bullied [last year],” said Masuma. “So I thought, why not try from home?”

To help her daughter socialize face-to-face with other kids, Masuma enrolled Hana in Baxter Forest School, an alternative education program where kids spend most of their time outside, one day a week. Hana also attends virtual Arabic classes two days a week after school. 

Masuma’s husband and Hana share the living room work space, and Masuma admits he does the lion’s share of helping their daughter stay on task. There is a possibility that he’ll be required to return to his office in the new year.

“When he goes back to work … it’s probably going to be a little bit more difficult.”

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No school closures after Christmas holiday break, says Ontario education minister

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Ontario elementary and secondary schools will not close for an extended winter break, says Education Minister Stephen Lecce.

Closures aren’t needed given Ontario’s “strong safety protocols, low levels of (COVID-19) transmission and safety within our schools,” Lecce announced Wednesday afternoon. He said he had consulted with Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams and the province’s public health measures advisory table.

That ended speculation about school buildings remaining closed in January for a period of time after the Christmas break.

Earlier in the week, Lecce told reporters the government was considering having students spend “some period out of class” in January, perhaps switching to online learning.

In a statement, Lecce said that even though rates of community transmission of COVID-19 are increasing, “schools have been remarkably successful at minimizing outbreaks to ensure that our kids stay safe and learning in their classrooms.”

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Windy start to the week in Ottawa

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OTTAWA — It’s a blustery Monday in the capital with wind gusts of up to 50 km/hour expected throughout the day.

Environment Canada is forecasting a high of 4 C with a 60 per cent chance of showers or flurries before the wind dies down later this evening.

There’s a chance of flurries on Tuesday as well with a high of -1 C. The overnight low will dip to an unseasonal -9 C.  

Wednesday’s high will be just -5 C with lots of sunshine.

Seasonal temperatures return for the rest of the week..

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