Assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm, inhuman conditions – over 2,000 newly leaked reports paint a sordid picture of Australia’s offshore refugee detention operations on the Pacific island of Nauru. The Guardian newspaper, in reporting the leak, said it’s a system marred by “routine dysfunction and cruelty.”
That’s no exaggeration. I had a close look at the abuses during seven days on Nauru last month, when I interviewed refugees and asylum seekers for a joint report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
About 1,200 men, women, and children who sought refuge in Australia were forcibly transferred to Nauru as part of the Australian government’s stated policy of deterring boat arrivals. Most have been held there for three years, much of that time in overcrowded tents in prison-like conditions. They regularly endure violence, threats, and harassment from Nauruans. Nearly everybody I interviewed told me that their mental well-being had deteriorated sharply as a consequence of the abuses they’ve suffered and the prolonged uncertainty they face about their future.
Even having heard similar stories, it’s difficult to read the reports, most of which are handwritten by counselors and other service providers who have little ability to help these people. A woman who misses her husband in Australia carves his name into her chest with a knife. A girl writes in her school notebook, “I want death, I need death.” A service provider notes that two children who had returned to school after a week’s absence “were both extremely withdrawn and depressed, drawing images of children behind bars with sewn lips.” The two “expressed great sadness, anger, fear and emotion” about their living conditions, the prospect of being sent to Cambodia, and the fact that they had witnessed people harming themselves. One of the two, a girl, had swallowed detergent. “I urged them not to hurt themselves and to keep going to school and being children and learning for the future,” the service provider wrote.
More than half the reports concern children, though children make up less than one-fifth of the refugee and asylum seeker population on Nauru.
The number of assaults, acts of self-harm, and other serious incidents have not fallen over time and in some cases have escalated. Additionally, 26 former Save the Children staff – social workers, teachers, and child protection specialists – have come out publicly saying that “nowhere near the full extent of the incident reports written on a day-to-day basis have been released.”
Australia’s government has known about these abuses and has not taken action to end them – indicating a deliberate strategy to deter boat arrivals. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection issued a statement saying the leaked documents reflected “unconfirmed allegations or uncorroborated statements and claims” and “not statements of proven fact.” But it’s clear the leaked documents provide further evidence that the offshore detention and processing program has been extremely abusive, and that children are at particular risk.
Australia should promptly close its operations on Nauru, as well as a similar facility on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. It should move immediately to settle refugees in Australia or an appropriate third country. And it should begin a reckoning for the abuses its agents committed and its officials condoned.