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Patrick van Berlo: 'Outsourcing the reception of asylum seekers has its downsides'

Asylum seekers wanting to get to Australia often end up in a detention centre on the tiny island state of Nauru. What effect does this ‘outsourcing’ of asylum seekers have on human rights? PhD candidate Patrick van Berlo went to Australia to investigate.

Some Dutch politicians regard the way Australia tries to discourage asylum seekers from travelling there by boat it as a shining example for the rest of the world. Any asylum seekers that are intercepted at sea are taken by the coastguard to Papua New Guinea or the tiny island state of Nauru. This should be enough to deter future immigrants from taking a chance on getting to Australia. 

Appalling

‘But this outsourcing of the reception of asylum seekers also has its downsides,' comments Patrick van Berlo, Leiden Law alumnus who has just returned from Australia where he spent several months conducting fieldwork for his dissertation. He talked to around 30 people who were either living or working in the asylum centre on Naura. ‘The living conditions on Naura are appalling, particularly for the women and children. Their feelings of hopelessness lead to depression and even suicide attempts. And because of Naura's isolated location, it's very difficult to monitor the situation from the outside.' 

Van Berlo wants to look at how human rights are valued in this kind of outsourcing. As the reception of asylum seekers has been contracted out to the independent country of Nauru, Australia claims that it is no longer primarily responsible for the protection of human rights on the island. On top of this, many of the activities related to the reception of asylum seekers have been privatised: companies are responsible for security, medical care, catering and welfare. How does this arrangement impact the effectiveness of the range of human rights instruments? 

More than just a legal impact

To be able to answer this question properly calls not only for  a legal analysis but also for social science research methods, according to Van Berlo. He has not yet completed his PhD research, but can already conclude that the value of human rights is highly diffuse and multidimensional. On the one hand it is more difficult to hold Australia to account for the often desperate conditions on Nauru. 'That's not only because of the complex administrative structures that are a result of contracting the responsibility to a third party, but also because Australia does not have a supervisory body - like the European Court of Human Rights - whose judgements are binding. On the other hand, in my dissertation I look at the possibility of the value of human rights not being limited to the law courts. Even if it is difficult to hold states legally responsible, human rights can still be of vital importance for the protection of human dignity and wellbeing.'

The notion of human rights is a multidimensional concept, Van Berlo maintains. ‘It can include such things as the discretionary freedom of choice of individual employees in the refugee camps, or the influence of NGOs on the conditions for detention by using human rights arguments. As a discourse, human rights language is potentially a strong vocabulary to formulate claims and to combat infringements.' Studying these different dimensions of human rights together in a specific case allows Van Berlo to examine them in a broad context. 

New Holland Scholarship

Van Berlo hopes to obtain his PhD next year at the Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology at the Faculty of Law. He was able to conduct his research in Australia thanks to a New Holland Scholarship - provided by the Dutch consulate in Sydney in cooperation with EP Nuffic - that enabled forty Dutch and Australian students and PhD candidates to conduct research in one another's countries. Van Berlo was also awarded an additional grant by the Leiden University Fund (LUF) from the  Swaantje Mondt Fund. These awards also gave him the opportunity to work as a visiting scholar at the Border Crossing Observatory of Monash University in Melbourne and the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the UNSW in Sydney.