out of sight, out of mind: human rights abuses at Nauru’s immigration detention centre
Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault and harassment
Last week footage surfaced of a Somali woman being found by police four hours after being raped. The woman was a detainee at Australia’s offshore detention centre on Nauru. (TW: The video in the link is very distressing to watch). A second woman at the centre has since appealed for an abortion in Australia to terminate a pregnancy that is also the result of a rape on the island.
These stories are devastating and familiar. Since Nauru became a venue for offshore processing as part of Australia’s immigration policy in 2001, accounts of harassment, sexual abuse, rape, bribery, neglect and truly sub-standard living conditions have trickled through the Australian media.
The reports are inevitably met with statements of regret from the government, followed by assurances that the circumstances that allow these human rights abuses will be addressed. The Howard, Gillard, Rudd, Abbott and now Turnbull governments have all responded in this similar way. Sometimes inquires follow, consistently producing evidence that the situation is more dire than initially thought, hands are wrung, and then we continue as we were.
The abuses on Nauru are facilitated by a series of policy decisions made by these successive Australian governments. Mandatory detention means the asylum seekers are on the island indefinitely*. The semi-lawless state of Nauru allows neglect and mistreatment to go unchallenged. Offshore processing means the abuses are out of sight, out of mind for Australian politicians and the body politic.
The detention centre on Nauru was reopened in 2012 by the Gillard government to detain anybody who arrived by boat without a valid visa. Under Australia’s mandatory detention policy this means these asylum seekers will be held in detention – rather than released into the community – until their refugee status can be determined. As part of the ‘no advantage’ policy, detainees must wait for resettlement on Manus Island or Nauru for as long as they would have waited in another transit country.
Since Nauru was initially opened in 2002 by the Howard government there have been reports of mistreatment and appalling conditions. A 2010 report from the Human Rights Education Centre outlined the poor living conditions in the camp, including severe water shortages, meaning there was rarely enough water to shower or wash clothes. The detainees were allowed very minimal freedom of movement throughout the island and were given jail time if they violated the rules on where they could be and when.
The unsanitary conditions caused by the water shortage led to outbreaks of dysentery, diarrhoea, skin and eye infections and dengue fever. The medical facilities on Nauru were so poor that detainees had to wait months for specialist attention.
The report also detailed the severe and widespread depression of the detainees. According to the psychiatrist in the camp, their mental health conditions generally worsened after their arrival, with some detainees holding a hunger strike and sewing their lips together.
When the centre on Nauru was reopened, similar reports began to make their way out. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees expressed deep concern over the offshore processing arrangements. The UNHCR’s regional representative, Rick Towle, stated it was difficult to make ‘full and credible’ determinations of refugee statuses in such remote locations.
‘We are dealing with very vulnerable populations, particularly women and children, unaccompanied minors, and to try and manage all of their needs in a protection-appropriate way in remote places, particularly in the Pacific, has proven to be challenging in the past and we have no doubt it will be challenging again in the future,” Mr Towle told the ABC’s World Today program at the time.
In March this year an independent inquiry by former Integrity Commissioner Phillip Moss found evidence of rape, sexual assault of minors, and guards trading marijuana for sexual favours from female detainees. The report found at least three women had been raped and noted that due to anxiety among detainees about their future refugee status, sexual assault was being under-reported.
The inquiry also noted that Nauru did not make working with children checks compulsory and had no mandatory requirement for reporting child abuse. Then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott responded to questions about the review: ‘Occasionally, I daresay things happen, because in any institution you get things that occasionally aren’t perfect.’
In April, an open letter from former Nauruan workers stated Immigration Ministers had known about abuse allegations from as early as November 2013 and had not responded.
By July, the Senate Select Committee on the Recent Allegations relating to Conditions and Circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru had heard evidence of sexual assault of children and women, and widespread self-harm. The Department Secretary Michael Pezzullo told the Senate Inquiry: ‘The government of Nauru is ultimately responsible in the exercise of its jurisdiction.’ When asked who has the moral responsibility, Pezullo shrugged: ‘I’m an administrator of the Commonwealth Department. I’ll tell you what the state of the law is.’
Last year, Nauru’s chief justice and only magistrate were both deported from the country. The former magistrate, Peter Law, told ABC Radio that the Nauruan police force did not currently have the capacity to collect forensic evidence and ambulances can take hours to arrive. He said, ‘The police are politicised…the current government has demonstrated a good deal of xenophobia.’
The former Chief Justice of Nauru, Geoffrey Eames, told The Saturday Paper that the country’s rule of law was in a parlous state. ‘Nauru is a closed society. The government controls the media, with directions that they are not allowed to interview or place on the news any opposition speakers’.
Nauru cannot possibly integrate 1,000 refugees into its own population of merely 10,000. Nauru’s history of colonialism and ongoing corruption contribute to political and judicial systems that are barely coping. The inability of the police to collect forensic evidence directly impacts the capacity to prosecute sexual abusers. And yet, when Malcolm Turnbull was asked about his policy on offshore processing in relation to the rape of the Somali woman, he responded, ‘We are taking steps to work closely with the Nauru government to ensure the safety and the security of all the refugees living in that community’.
‘This is not a theoretical exercise anymore,’ Turnbull said. ‘The one thing we know is these policies, tough though they are, harsh though they are in many respects, actually do work, they save lives.’
Since its original opening the detention centre on Nauru has continued to be a site of abuse, humiliation and devastation. No side of politics, no variation on the agreement with Nauru and no well-intended inquiry has changed the appalling conditions the detainees are forced to live in.
Offshore processing first permits abuse and then disguises it. Forcing vulnerable people into semi-lawless and under-resourced communities invites violations and mistreatments. Keeping these abuses technically outside the Australian jurisdiction allows politicians and voters to view it as a problem beyond their control. This is only compounded by the recent changes to the Australian Border Force Act, which have the potential to criminalise the recording of any “protected information”.
Offshore processing is also far more expensive than domestic solutions. The excuse of maintaining border security through offshore detention centres is simply a conflation of two separate issues – the treatment of refugees and border control. These are two distinct concerns, which require separate responses.
The treatment of refugees cannot be handled ethically or compassionately on Nauru. While the centre is there, the Australian government can continue to shift the blame onto the Nauruan state, which does not have the resources to manage the centre. The ongoing abuse and neglect, under multiple governments representing both major parties, is testament to this. There is no reason for offshore processing that is can be morally or logistically justified.
*Yesterday, the Nauruan government promised to process all remaining detainees on the island within the next week, effectively ending detention. The move has come less than two days before a High Court was due to assess the lawfulness of the centre. While the Turnbull Government has welcomed the decision, questions have been raised over the timing of the announcement.