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A new report into the treatment of women on Nauru confirms the dysfunction of offshore detention and the government’s indifference. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Women on Nauru report documents abuse

In late 2014, a letter signed by the “Youth of the Republic of Nauru” began circulating around the island nation. Addressed to the Nauruan and Australian governments, and the large contingent of asylum seekers Nauru was hosting, the letter was posted on electricity poles, shop windows and the cyclone fencing of the detention camps. It was impassioned, paranoid and threatening. It opened: “We the youth of Republic of Nauru inform refugees and bring forward some key issues created because of resettlement program by the Government of Australia and our corrupt government.

“Among lots of problems we have in our community because of this resettlement program the one big highlighted problem we can see is that Refugees are taking over all our job opportunities and spreading over our small, congested community, making our lives miserable as we can see clearly in the near future refugees will be the leading and ruling people and will make local community people their slaves … So we warn all the refugees working around in different sectors to quit the jobs and stay back of our community and also stop walking around in the island.” 

The island is the size of Melbourne airport – though large swaths of it are uninhabitable – and contains 10,000 people. Currently, there are about 1200 refugees living on Nauru. The population has increased, arguably unsustainably, while the country’s habitable sections have decreased in area because of rapacious strip mining. Before its independence in 1968, the island was variously governed by Germany, the British Empire and Australia. It has been bombed, murderously occupied by Japan during World War II, and devastated by introduced diseases. In latter years, it has been profoundly undermined by greed and corruption, amid the riches of a phosphate boom. “I wish we’d never discovered that phosphate,” Reverend James Aingimea, then minister of the Nauru Congregational Church, told The New York Times in 1995. “I wish Nauru could be like it was before. When I was a boy, it was so beautiful. There were trees. It was green everywhere, and we could eat the fresh coconuts and breadfruit. Now I see what has happened here, and I want to cry.”

For a remote Pacific island, Nauru has frequently found itself on geopolitical fault lines. This history was reflected in the hostile language of the youths’ letter, reflecting their finding themselves squeezed between the mutual interests of two federal governments. As their letter stated: “Nauru is a conservative country, it is not a multicultural country so resettling refugees means in[tro]ducing different culture from different countries and we think that we are never been ready for that but the mistake and wrong decision of few corrupt people from Nauru government putting the lives, culture, customs, values of Nauru local people in danger.”

From there, the letter argued, essentially, that refugees were sexually disempowering local men. It is a crucial element of the report released this week by Australian Women in Support of Women on Nauru (AWSWN). “Our women, girls and teenagers are interested in refugees,” the letter continued, “because of their skin, colour, face and handsomeness. Our wives, sisters and daughters are in contact with refugees and having affairs with them and we can never see our women having fun with refugees and neglecting locals.”

It continued: “So we warn Refugees to Go Away of our country and just to hell with all your concerns if not, get ready for the bad things happening and waiting ahead. We warn our Corrupt Government as well as Australian Government to take away your rubbish.”

The “bad things” are happening. In the time since the letter began appearing around the island, I have spoken to a number of people once employed there – teachers, lawyers, doctors and guards – as well as refugees themselves. All have told me of increasing local hostility, expressed in menacing protests and abuse. I have heard women’s stories of rape and harassment, and of young male refugees mugged and beaten. They have shared with me photos of their bruised faces. These young men, having been settled on the island, now crave the relative security of the camps.

This week’s report from the AWSWN, entitled “Protection Denied, Abuse Condoned: Women on Nauru”, pieces together evidence of endemic violence against women – much of it provided by Australian government inquiries, much of it largely ignored when first documented. The report finds that “the plight of women on Nauru is clearly critical. Despite detailed evidence of sexual assault, particularly pregnancies resulting from rape, the Australian government refuses to recognise the essentially unsafe environment on Nauru and to move refugees and asylum seekers to a secure environment.”

This week, a young female refugee on Nauru told me: “I don’t go out alone, always with a male companion, and not so late in the night. All the women [feel the same].”

The stories contained in the report – and there are many – have been known for some time, and often reported in these pages, but the report’s sum is greater than its parts. It offers a powerful, if dispiriting, chronology. The production and receipt of news is so fragmentary that we often lose context and history. The surfeit of news, all fickle polls and doorstops, produces sound and colour but is ruinous to our memories. So it is useful to have this report succinctly compile the history of death, anguish, politics, secrecy, lawsuits and inquiries that constitute the sad, operatic past of our client state Nauru – and, ultimately, the Australian government’s indifference to it all.

Horrific allegations

The “Women On Nauru” report reminds us of the wretched compromise our government has made. We are patrons of a state many international observers describe as “failed”. The report reminds us of Nauru’s frequent, arbitrary abuse of power – which includes the summary deportation of Australian officials – and the dire restrictions upon freedom of speech. In recent years, Nauru has been condemned by the United States Department of State, the US-based Freedom House, and the United Nations. In 2014, the year the letter from Nauruan youth began circulating, the country’s Department of Women’s Affairs released the findings of a survey of violence against women. Almost half of the women surveyed reported having experienced physical or sexual violence, yet in the previous year only one rape was reported on the island.

Among this dysfunction we have placed vulnerable women and children. They have lived in dilapidated and insecure tents, only haphazardly supplied with water and electricity. Conditions are so bad that there is a train of litigation begun by the people employed in the camps against their employers and administrators. The national watchdog for Australian workplaces is Comcare, and under federal statute the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) is obliged to report to this body any “notifiable incidents” occurring in offshore centres. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) applied to view the chain of reports between the department and Comcare. It released its findings this week in a 150-page report called “Untold Damage”. It found, in part, that “inconsistencies exist in the reporting of incidents by the DIBP and the investigation of incidents by Comcare,” and: “The DIBP and Comcare appear to seriously misunderstand the nature of some injuries and illnesses, meaning threats to workplace health and safety are not responded to. This is particularly the case in relation to sexual misconduct and mental health … Evidence provided by whistleblowers and the DIBP itself to the parliamentary inquiries into Nauru and Manus Island indicates gross inconsistencies in the number of incidents reported, suggesting under-reporting of incidents to Comcare.”

The report grimly complemented the AWSWN’s – that there was a rotten pervasiveness of sexual assault and subsequent mental decline. Remarkably, despite three government investigations into offshore centres finding evidence of rape, sexual harassment and child abuse – a senate inquiry, the Moss report and the Australian Human Rights Commission’s investigation of children in detention – the department of immigration referred no allegations of sexual assault to Comcare arising from either Manus or Nauru in the two years examined by the ALA. “A boy of 16 was indecently assaulted by a worker on Nauru,” the spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, Greg Barns, said this week. “His mental health deteriorated rapidly after the assault, but Comcare does not appear to have been informed, possibly because he was not hospitalised. This boy’s family was subjected to bullying and death threats following the incident, and both he and his brother were also physically assaulted.”

In the AWSWN report, there is a horrific litany of rape allegations, many established. It is a sorrowful history. One Iranian women writes: “When we received our refugee status we would have to leave the compound to collect our fortnightly allowance and do shopping. We were never safe when doing so as the locals would hurl abuse at us and spit at us. I made every effort to stay indoors and only leave the compound when it was absolutely necessary. I felt trapped and imprisoned. On one of the shopping trips I had to do, I was with a few other ladies. As we walked outside the compound, a few locals insisted on giving us a lift. They were drunk, and started spitting at us, and using abusive and racist language. We got out of the car as quickly as we could, and made our way to the shops. We had people follow us, and they started touching and groping us. I was terrified and had to run away to safety. After reaching safety, I reported this incident to the local police. The police did not bother to investigate, and never took any action. I felt that the authorities turned a blind eye to whatever happened to us.”

A young woman on Nauru told me this week: “It is sad and terrifying. Australian authorities wants us to go by rules with them, but when it’s about refugees and asylum seekers, neither Nauru or Australia would go by the rules with us. So unfair and powerless. For example, if you hit an officer you would be jailed but if someone is being raped, no investigations for them because they are asylum seekers or refugees.” 

Parallel arguments on policy

The arguments for and against offshore processing largely occur in parallel. Its architects and enforcers, namely the two major political parties, say they are preventing deaths at sea and protecting Australia from the covert entry of murderous fanatics. Among some voters, it seems the muscular, unqualified commitment to the policy is glimpsed as a virtue itself, independent of the policy.

Opponents cite breaches of international law and duty of care. They refer to squalid and ill-regulated conditions that have borne rape and murder, which place refugees among populations dangerously hostile to their presence. Offshore camps are a form of cynical barbarism, “factories for producing mental illness”.

The arguments are obvious. Less obvious is the fact of them long occurring without intersection. Opponents’ assertions have not mattered, and they have not mattered for a long time. To view immigration policy between Keating and today is to apprehend the futility of moral indignation – or at least its orthodox formulations. For more than two decades we have seen a ratcheting effect.

Some amelioration has been provided by the law. The recent determination of the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court that its Manus Island camp is unconstitutional has unhinged the policy slightly, even if the subsequent limbo has been almost entirely absent from this election campaign. In 2011, the Australian High Court determined that the Gillard government’s arrangement with Malaysia was invalid, and an attempt to test the legality of offshore processing in the same court this year led to the government’s preemptive “opening” of the Nauruan camp to circumvent any adverse ruling. In April this year, lawyers for Save the Children extracted from the government compensation for, and admission of, the unfair dismissal of 10 of their employees, and the brazen but baseless tarnishing of their employer’s reputation.

But public debate has been less effective, and opposing arguments cannot continue to be made in determined aloofness from the government’s. To review the past decade of discourse and its effectiveness, and then to continue to argue in bubbles, is to choose the pleasures of moral superiority over influence. The arguments opposing the policy, as valid as they are, aren’t working. To continue with the same formulations of despair and debate is to float righteously on the periphery. This is said without pleasure. One might expect appeals to law and decency to have mattered. But we must accept that, largely, they haven’t.

A perpendicular line must be drawn between parallel arguments. This might begin with opponents to offshore processing conceding the strongest argument for it – deterring desperate families from making the perilous journey to our shores. Numbers vary slightly, but we can say with some confidence that since 2007 some 1100 people have drowned or been fatally smashed against reefs and cliffs in their attempt to reach Australia by boat. Many were children. And we can say that that has ceased.

For three years I have periodically raised this fact with UN employees, policymakers, activists and friends. There are normally two responses: an awkward muteness, before an inevitable pivot; or a hostile dismissal of the sincerity of politicians who cite this argument. “It’s not genuine,” they say. “It’s a convenient alibi for the real reason of the policy: racism.”

But there’s nothing insincere about the numbers. There was a concentration of death, and now there is not. There is great arrogance or obtuseness in supposing that your belief in the real motives of politicians somehow expunges the fact of the 1100 dead. By assigning bad faith to your opponents, you think you’ve solved the problem of drowned children. But they’re still there, at the bottom of the sea, with the promise of more.

Which is not to say that the government’s policy is not cynical, ruthless and in commune with racism. The “Women on Nauru” report usefully sketches the recent policy history, and we might be forgiven for believing nothing so strongly as political cravenness. In 2007, then prime minister Kevin Rudd promised that “Labor will end the Pacific Solution, the so-called Pacific Solution, the processing and detaining of asylum seekers on Pacific islands, because it is costly, unsustainable and wrong as a matter of principle”. Less than three years later, the night Rudd was fatefully tapped on the shoulder he correctly warned Australians that Gillard would “lurch to the right” on the issue. But Rudd would double-down on that very policy when he was briefly reinstated as prime minister. Shorten has followed suit. And when Immigration Minister Peter Dutton goes on 2GB and defiantly says that “Australia won’t be blackmailed” he is appealing to fixations on the imagined connivances of foreigners.

Either/or debate false

But it must also be said that the policy, however crookedly fashioned, can have its virtues. Opponents deny this at the risk of their broader persuasiveness. Appeals to humanitarianism are repeatedly invoked by opponents to the policy, but I can think of few things more humanitarian than preventing a mother watch her child drown. Certainly we might address the very conditions that induced such desperation, but the truth is we have little influence on Syria, say, and a lot over our borders and the poor souls who risk their lives to reach them.

By accepting the deaths at sea argument, opponents of the current policies demonstrate a willingness to accept that a debate must be had beyond expressions of despair. Alternatives can then be more openly canvassed. We might, however bloodless this appears, discuss the extravagant cost of offshore processing – some 10 times more expensive than using bridging visas. We might consider the dreams of policymakers, otherwise cowed in a newly militaristic department, of a regionally co-operative system that uses a lottery to disincentivise the journey to Australia.

For the current policy’s defenders, they might be pressed on their moral calculus: precisely what cost is permissible to stop the boats? Because great numbers have ceased, only to be replaced with a system of brutality that has also claimed lives.

It is not the case that we must choose between suicides and drowning. A mother needn’t see her children abused in an offshore camp rather than see them drown. Yet by continuing to argue in bubbles, by ignoring history, and by stubbornly resisting engagement with opponents, the public conversation has become an either/or proposition. And opponents are losing. Have been losing for some time. To consistently deploy the same arguments seems to me either stupidity or moral vanity.

Clearly something needs to change. As this week’s reports make clear, we have long abandoned our responsibility to provide a system that is safe and appropriately regulated. The squalor and threat has persisted beneath a cloak of Nauruan corruption and our own government’s persistent secrecy.

After all this time, critics might, without relaxing focus upon the abuses in these reports, need to separate the arguments that work from the ones that don’t. Because a quarter-century since mandatory detention – and 15 years since Tampa – offshore processing is as politically entrenched as it has ever been.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 11, 2016 as "Tracing Nauru’s abuse of women". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.