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Reports of sexual abuse and cruelty on Nauru are the latest in a long line of woes for the detention centre. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Abuse on Nauru, Scott Morrison’s wretched island

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison.
Credit: REUTERS/SAMRANG PRING

The allegations are numerous and bleak and arise from a lonely patch of spent phosphate rock 3300 kilometres from Brisbane. Such are the exotic locations of our displaced responsibilities. For months, claims of sexual abuse have bubbled from the three detention camps on Nauru, numbly designated RPC (Regional Processing Centre) 1-3. 

This week, in documents made public by Guardian Australia, it emerged that security firm Transfield – responsible for order at the camps – had been aware of suggestions of sexual abuse for some time. Allegations include guards forcing children to perform sexual acts upon each other, the molestation and physical assault of children, and the extraction of sexual favours from detained women. Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young told me: “Mothers there have told me that they’ve had to provide oral sex to guards in order to bathe their children. Water shortages are such that very small allotments of time are given. And the guards stand there to make sure no one exceeds the limit. Guards will drag people out of showers, even. This gives them a lot of power. I’ve been told other stories where guards force women to strip in front of them.”

The allegations of abuse and self-harm moved the immigration minister this week to express disgust and announce an inquiry into the allegations. But Scott Morrison also raised counter-allegations – that staff from Save the Children, which provide education and welfare services to detained children, had been encouraging detainees to protest, self-harm and fabricate stories. The minister cited a report, believed to have been provided by Transfield, and announced before a press conference that 10 Save the Children staff would be removed from the island. 

A News Corp story, covering the allegations of fabrication, was published before Save the Children had been provided with the report in question, and well before the organisation had been given the names of the 10 staff to be expelled. Save the Children put out a statement, saying: “We take these allegations very seriously but we reject in the strongest terms possible that our staff have fabricated stories of abuse or encourage self-harm. We note that Save the Children has not been provided with any investigative report by the Australian government although media outlets have been.”

Hanson-Young was suspicious. This week she referred the report’s alleged leak to the Australian Federal Police (AFP), suggesting it as a possible breach of section 70 of the Crimes Act, which prohibits the improper use of privileged information. “Fair’s fair,” Hanson-Young tells me. “The minister has accused Save the Children of breaching the Crimes Act, so what applies to them also applies to the minister’s office and his department. How was it that Save the Children didn’t see a copy of these reports before The Daily Telegraph did? It’s double standards. I mean, the first time Save the Children heard about this was when it hit the front page. I’ll add that there are many reports – both official and unofficial – about the mistreatment and abuse on Nauru.”

In response to detailed questions about the report, a spokesperson for the minister referred me to existing statements. This level of unhelpfulness is now customary for Morrison’s department.

Alarmingly, these allegations of child sexual abuse have been occurring in a country whose judiciary was suspended for six months this year. Geoffrey Eames, QC, was appointed chief justice of Nauru in 2010. A Melburnian, and former Victorian and Northern Territory judge, Eames tells me the idea of helping establish a judiciary in Nauru appealed to him. “It was a challenge. A big challenge. But I’d worked in the Pacific before, doing advocacy work. And this opportunity resonated with me.” 

At the start of the year, Eames was ensnared in Nauru’s grimy politics. Eames’s colleague, Peter Law, was expelled from the country on, according to Eames, “false and defamatory” grounds. When Eames attempted an injunction against Law’s deportation, he had his visa suspended. In March he resigned. “The delay of nearly six months will have a huge impact on the judicial system,” Eames says. “When I was appointed in December 2010, there was already a substantial backlog of cases as there had been no chief justice for 10 months. Despite its small population, Nauruans are very litigious with great competition for scarce resources. The outcome of land cases determines who has a claim for a share of the limited remaining royalties from phosphate mining. Given that transcription facilities are so poor, there is no record of the evidence or submissions in those cases. They will have to be reheard. In addition to the normal civil and criminal lists, there are many outstanding criminal cases arising from the destruction of the detention centre by fires in July 2013.” 

Eames made an inspection of the detention camps last year, and met with the Nauruan president to discuss his findings. He’s reluctant to share with me his thoughts because the conditions of the camp may come before a court in the future. However, he has been following the Save the Children allegations and sympathises with the organisation. “I find it quite extraordinary that Save the Children would encourage children to sew their lips. There’s a pattern here of vague allegations that are never specified or substantiated. In my case it was allegations of cronyism. It seems as if Save the Children are facing the same thing. Accused of fabrication or coaching, but removed are the details.” 

Local bitterness

Nauru lies closer to Honolulu than Melbourne, and at just 21 square kilometres its perimeter can be traced by car in 20 minutes. It is home to about 10,000 people. An equatorial island, it broils in perennial humidity that contributes to the accustomed listlessness of civic life. Attempts to escape the sultriness with air-conditioning are frustrated by poor energy supplies. 

Of the 21 square kilometres, little of it is habitable. Life exists on a thin, green coastal belt surrounding a large plateau of coral reef squeezed up from the ocean floor. Locals call this “topside” and it now consists of arid pinnacles of mined phosphate. This hinterland resembles a moonscape, after decades of mining and little rehabilitation. Phosphate has all but been exhausted. Australia’s three detention camps are built here. 

Locals and foreign workers uncomfortably share the coastal belt with a plague of wild dogs and pigs. A few months ago, an 11-year-old girl was fatally mauled by a dog, and Australian organisations were prompted to formally suggest employees arm themselves with large sticks. The Nauruan government is now offering a $50 bounty for each slain wild dog. 

At the Menen Hotel, a makeshift bar called the Reef profitably absorbs workers desperate to slake their thirst. Conviviality can be threatened by stupor and a bitter awareness among locals that foreign workers are earning 10 times what they are. “I picked up on the tension amongst local staff,” Hanson-Young tells me. “They know Australians and New Zealanders are being paid much more than they are. That was the deal that was struck. A cap of $4.50 an hour for locals. It couldn’t go to $5 an hour because that’s the rate for public servants, and they feared they’d lose them to detention-related work if the money improved.”

Geoffrey Eames remembers a brawl there. “I saw ugly fights at the hotel. There’s hostility between different workers. I remember one man wearing a T-shirt with a giant raised middle finger on it. He was a guard. The message was clear. The locals are acutely aware of the difference in wages.”

Despite boasting the second highest per capita GDP in the world in 1975, phosphate profits were crookedly squandered. Today, infrastructure is shambolic. “When I drove around the island I saw a decrepit country,” Hanson-Young says. “Homes falling apart. Little infrastructure. Visiting the local hospital was a big wake-up call for me. I took photos of the maternity ward. Mums in labour sit on a metal bench in the waiting room; the theatre itself is filled with rusty and dirty beds. No sheets, and the mattresses are bloodstained. Water shortages are severe. And we’re dropping vulnerable people into all of this?” 

Meanwhile, in the Chinese restaurant, a flat-screen television plays Home and Away in the evenings – if the power’s working. 

Long-term intrigue

That these allegations, counterclaims and an AFP investigation now focus upon this tiny island is appropriate. It is the logical endurance of a special and squalid kind of intrigue that has distinguished Nauru for decades. 

Before independence in 1968, Nauru had been colonised by Germans, converted into a military garrison by the Japanese, subsequently bombed by the Allies in the 1940s, then administered by Australia following the war. Until the early 1960s, Nauru’s population peak was about 2000. Unmolested by global tumult, it began to grow. So, too, did its profits. In its year of independence, Nauru’s assets were estimated to be $500,000 per person. And that figure would increase. 

Between independence and the late 1990s, billions of dollars were made exporting phosphate. But as supply began to diminish, so too did the profits – evaporated by corruption and maladroit investment. Nauru’s politicians bought international hotels – as much a source of private indulgence as dividends – and made credulous donations to con men posing as financiers. There was a failed investment in a West End production, but much money simply vanished into private accounts. Precisely auditing this madness is impossible because of poor accountancy. “I was told a story,” Eames laughs. “And I believe it. About the police chief who buys a Lamborghini. It lands at the barge and there’s this huge crowd of people there to look at it. And the chief goes up to the car, but he’s so fat that he can’t get behind the wheel. So they just dump the thing behind his house, and that’s where it stays. There’s a wonderful film there to be made about Nauru’s history.” 

When the Nauru government began defaulting on its debts, public servants were left without wages and telephones across the country were cut off. After John Howard’s “Pacific Solution” in 2001, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) was hired to technically assist Nauru in its development – especially water and electricity. It found infrastructure to be woefully inadequate, and water supplies to be well below the World Health Organisation’s benchmark. But incredibly, its 2006 report remarks that ADB staff and Australian government representatives struggled to meet with the Nauruan government to discuss their development. “This meeting had been rescheduled several times due to difficulties with flights to Nauru and availability of key government officials.” They ended up meeting in Brisbane. 

In the late 1990s, schoolboy plots were hatched to fill the giant hole in revenue. Nauru created shell banks – essentially fake institutions charging zero tax but high join-up fees – which became laundering houses for Russian mobsters, Islamic terrorists and Colombian cocaine dealers. According to the Jamestown Foundation – a Washington, DC-based think tank – some $70 billion of Russian capital was filtered through Nauru in 1998 alone. Not long after, the United States designated Nauru a rogue state and secretary of state Colin Powell intervened to halt the island’s operations. 

Once by fate, then increasingly by design, this lonely island had insinuated itself in global terror, trafficking, theatre, finance, war and, more recently, Australian politics. Its people remain stricken by diabetes, alcoholism and dimmed opportunity. “The influx of white faces in 2012 has created a big boost to employment,” Eames says. “When I got to the island in 2011, unemployment was around 80 per cent. Now it’s around 20 per cent. So it inspired people. But there’s a darker side, too. There’s tension between groups. Some of that tension can get violent. Local culture has been impacted. And the people are always aware of those lost opportunities. But, remarkably, they’re still an optimistic people.”

The same can’t be said for detainees. Conditions in the camp are dire. By casting our responsibilities so far off shore, asylum seekers are subject to employees who would struggle to find work in Australian centres. “The isolation of the camp means the quality of staff suffers,” Hanson-Young tells me. “And there’s no child protection regimen on the island, which is unthinkable.”

The distance of the island – and the opaqueness of the department that runs it – has successfully lowered the importance of the policy in Australians’ minds. But the allegations of abuse this week, and the intrigue they were wrapped in, may yet change that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 11, 2014 as "Scott Morrison’s wretched island". Subscribe here.

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