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Nauru and Australia: Partners in Refugee Abuse

A Well-Earned Rebuke From the UN Children’s Rights Committee

The government of Nauru went to Geneva last month to defend the indefensible: its complicity with Australia’s offshore detention and processing of refugees. Unsurprisingly, its effort was unsuccessful.

In a blistering report issued today, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child found numerous, serious violations relating to the treatment of refugee and asylum-seeking children.

Refugee children on Nauru protest Australia’s offshore detention operations, August 2016.  © 2016 Private

These include intimidation, sexual assault, actual or threatened violence, and other inhuman and degrading treatment. These abuses take place in a climate of “persistent discrimination” against refugee and asylum-seeking children, the committee noted, and go unaddressed because of the Nauru police force’s “limited capacity” to investigate reports of sexual assault and other acts of violence against children.

The consequences for children’s mental and physical well-being are dire, with suicide attempts and repeated self-harm by young children – as I saw first-hand when I interviewed children and their families on Nauru in July for a joint report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

“I’m tired of my life,” a 15-year-old girl told me, saying that she had tried to commit suicide twice. I spoke to other children who had injured themselves with lighters or razor blades. Parents told me that many children had begun to wet their beds, suffer nightmares, or act out. Some stopped playing, or wouldn’t go outside or talk to anyone except immediate family members.

Nauru’s home affairs minister attempted to paint a rosy picture of conditions for refugee and asylum-seeking children when she appeared before the committee. As today’s report shows, the committee members didn’t buy it.

It’s unlikely that real change will come from Nauru, though. Refugee detention is its most lucrative – really its only meaningful – source of foreign revenue. To keep the cash flowing in, the Nauruan government has gone to great lengths to keep information about Australia’s offshore operations secret. And Nauru’s president and justice minister have been dismissive of criticism from abroad and repressive of dissent at home.

Australia is really running the show, and for all practical purposes that’s where the pressure is needed. Successive Australian governments have promoted harsh and abusive approaches to deter boat arrivals, driving adults and children to the breaking point in the face of sustained suffering. It should be called to account for that sordid legacy.

That’s not to say that Nauru is off the hook for abuses on its territory that it condoned and facilitated. For better or for worse, it’s tied itself to Australia’s cruel strategy, and it too must answer for these abuses.

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