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One woman molested after a suicide attempt, as other abuse is left uninvestigated. These are the horrific conditions on Nauru. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Fear and abuse: the Nauru letters

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison.
Credit: AFP

She is Iranian and has been detained on Nauru for 16 months. I do not know her name, but what she describes is obscene. Her allegations – like the others I have – are expressed in a neat, handwritten letter. The language is anguished but expansive, possessed of a broad English vocabulary. She has written a second letter in Arabic. This missive is less neat and marked with violent, cyclonic erasures. 

The woman writes that in mid-October she succumbed to despair. “Because of so many problems and on top of them the news [the immigration department] informed us of, I found out that life is impossible for me.” In her pain, she attempted suicide by swallowing detergent powder. The woman quickly became ill, suffering “severe coughs and nausea”. She was taken to the medical clinic, operated by the Australian government’s health contractor there, International Health and Medical Services (IHMS). 

“When I was laying on the clinic’s bed, because I was too weak both my arms were hanging from both sides of the bed. I was so weak I could not even lift my arms. In the meantime two male nurses were standing on my sides trying to find veins to give me IV. The one on my left side was pretending that his trying to find my vein but in fact he was rubbing my palm on his sex organ. He moved my hand left and right the way I could literally feel his organ on my palm. In that moment I really was unable to do anything. I even could not tell anyone anything the following week.” She says this was the second occasion of sexual assault she has experienced on Nauru. 

The woman concludes her letter with a description of the life she fled – “injustice, unequality [sic] and sexual harassment faced since childhood” – and her strangled hope that she might have found peace in Australia. “But I was wrong and I don’t have any motivation for life anymore… What have I done wrong to deserve this humiliation? I am no longer fine mentaly [sic] and I sincerely ask for your help.” The short letter flitters between resignation and desperate puffs on dying embers. 

I put this allegation to IHMS, along with questions regarding the vetting of non-Australian staff. Predictably, the company transferred my inquiries to that great cliff of obduracy, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. I received no response. 

However, the former head of IHMS’s mental health services, Dr Peter Young, did speak to me about it. Young emerged as a whistleblower during the Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into child detention back in July. He had recently resigned from the company. A softly spoken man, Young gave testimony that was halting, unsure. You could float boats between the awkward pauses. Regardless, what he said elicited gasps. “They [the department] reacted with alarm [about incidence of self-harm] and have asked us to withdraw these figures from our reporting.”

Young tells me that he hasn’t heard this particular allegation of sexual abuse, “but these are the things that can happen in a closed institutional setting. You massively increase the risk of problems, and that’s what we’re seeing. More, there’s only a rudimentary police presence. They can’t properly investigate these situations. We saw this on Manus Island after the murder.”

Young explains that profit determines the high number of foreign staff working for IHMS on Nauru. “The foreign nurses, and they’re mostly from the Philippines, are paid $10 an hour. That’s much less than Australian staff are paid, obviously. But with foreign workers, there is a lesser standard of checking backgrounds. Those recruited in Australia go through the normal procedures like any other health service – there’d be a working with children check, and a criminal background check, et cetera. But Nauru doesn’t have these procedures. And IHMS are employing people that haven’t been vetted in a way that would happen in Australia. So the allegation you mentioned, that sort of behaviour is far less likely to happen in Australia.” 

Young’s description of a near vacuum of judicial and procedural probity is well established. There is no child protection legislation on Nauru. The judiciary is subject to rotten caprice, and was suspended for much of this year. Unaccompanied minors granted refugee status fall under the guardianship of Nauru Justice Minister David Adeang – a man censured by the US Department of State, and who has a history of barring political rivals from television. This lack of civic protection is mirrored in the private practices of companies contracted to work there. 

There is another letter in my possession. Like the first, the author is an Iranian woman. She is 33 years old. It dwells less on alleged sexual harassment, and more on the absence of protective and investigatory procedures. It describes a vacuum. 

The letter alleges that on August 14 this year, a Thursday, the writer of the letter and her friend – a 34-year-old female detainee, also from Iran – boarded a shuttle bus under the watch of Wilson security guards. It was 7pm. The women were travelling a short distance to a hair salon that they managed for other asylum seekers. The salon is situated in OPC1 (Offshore Processing Centre), where the school and IHMS’s clinic are based. 

The women finished work at 9pm, and under security escort walked to the bus stop, from which they would be taken back to their accommodation in OPC3. “All five of them [security guards] were laughing and talking in their native language. We wondered what was the reason for that. When we looked at the clinic’s window which reflects at nights, we saw that the officer who were supposed to escort us is holding his sex organ and imitating some sex actions, directed towards us.”

The women returned to OPC3 and reported what happened, telling their camp supervisor that the alleged incident would undoubtedly have been recorded on the closed-circuit cameras trained on the area. 

When two months later another, unspecified, “incident occurred”, the women inquired about their previous complaint. They had heard nothing. Had the tapes been checked? Had the man been counselled or punished? They knew he wasn’t fired – they still saw him around camp. 

“The behaviour team came to us and said that they have not received any complaints regarding our case and they assumed it has been lost, while we told some of the officers that night and they assured us that they will put this in their daily report.”

What followed was a slothful blend of cynicism or incompetence, exercised more or less freely. The complainants had provided camp staff with the man’s name, but were nonetheless shown a selection of photos of potential offenders, none of which included the man in question. When they asked again if the tapes had been reviewed, authorities replied that they had not been, and were now likely deleted. “They told us there is nothing we can do for you because there is no evidence.” 

While they were looking at the photos, one of the camp’s security guards entered the room. The women were terrified, knowing that the man would realise what they were doing – that they were investigating his friends. The camp staff officer shut the laptop immediately and questioned why the guard was there. But it was too late – the women’s actions had been exposed. “Since everyone are relatives here we don’t feel secured.”

The letter continues, describing guard intimidation and the women’s fear of reprisal. Referring to any future designation as refugees, it concludes with a rhetorical question: “When we have this security inside the camp, who is going to defend us outside?”

‘It is dangerous here’

School’s finished for the day, and Malek is sitting on a Nauru beach. For the sake of his protection, I have changed his name. Malek is just a short boat trip away from the equator. I can hear waves lapping in the background, and it sounds tranquil. Gently meditative. But when Malek looks at the ocean, he tells me, he thinks of the most dangerous time of his life – the two days and two nights travelling from Indonesia to Christmas Island on a decrepit boat. “It was very scary. The boat was moving around so much, and you wonder, perhaps I should jump now.” 

Malek turns 17 next month. He is an Afghan Hazara living on Nauru. He is an unaccompanied minor – or UAM in the bureaucratic lingo – and was released from the detention camp five weeks ago, after being granted refugee status but refused a home in Australia. “But it is much worse now,” he tells me. “It is dangerous here.” He shares a cramped house with about 20 other boys – mostly Iranian and Afghan. 

I have a photo of Malek, and I was surprised by how much it stirred me: a handsome boy, arms extended like a bird, smiling ecstatically for the camera. He has cropped black hair, and a black T-shirt with red print. He is standing on a beach, his legs cropped, but I imagine him without shoes. 

Malek was four when the twin towers came down. He lived in a remote part of Afghanistan often haunted by the Taliban, who throughout the 1990s butchered thousands of the minority Shia group. In 1998, when Malek was one, the Taliban murdered more than 2000 Hazaras in Mazar-i-Sharif. It was done in the name of God – the Hazara were considered infidels. 

The towers fell and so began the great abatement of the Taliban – but not their extinction. There is an early J. G. Ballard story, called “The Garden of Time”, in which an aristocratic couple – delicate and tender – watch a horde of barbarians advance on them from over the horizon. They grimly prepare for their death and defilement, but can magically delay the end by plucking from a finite cluster of crystalline flowers. When a stem is snapped, time obligingly pauses for everything and everyone outside the garden. They pick a flower and watch the wicked band suspended, frozen; life resumes for them. But time can be arrested for only so long, and there are only so many flowers. The end arrives. As it must. 

We have just about plucked our last flower in Afghanistan. The Taliban are returning. In many parts, they are already well established. The sectarian slaughter had been paused for a long spell in the previous decade – the Taliban had not only been militarily affronted but was desperate to burnish its image and earn the trust of Afghans – but it has resumed. Late last year, in three Afghan cities, bombs were detonated targeting the Shia minority. Sixty-three died. Attacks are continuing. “Everyone know in the world why people are leaving Afghanistan,” Malek tells me. “Hazara are treated different. They kill us, they confiscate our land. You’re Shia Muslim? You should be killed. The Taliban will come and kill you.”

So Malek fled. He made his way across land to India. From there he got to Malaysia. From Malaysia he travelled by boat to Indonesia. Then came the “dangerous nights” – the trip from Indonesia to Christmas Island, during which he weighed the calculus of staying on a wildly listing ship or jumping. And he wondered how it was that his escape from the Taliban was as dangerous as living with them. 

Against the sound of waves, Malek stopped my questions about his voyage to Nauru. His interjection was jarringly adult. This wasn’t the kid with outstretched arms, the blazing smile. “I don’t want to explain my journey because this situation is much more important and it makes me sad. Others all have their stories, too. But what is important is these conditions on Nauru.”

The UAMs released into the Nauru community have been attacked by locals half-a-dozen times since their release, Malek tells me. Whipped and stomped at times. “One boy was hospitalised,” Malek says. “We don’t fight back. They are much bigger and older than us. They are drunk all day and all night. They say things like, ‘You fucking Muslim, get the fuck out of our country’ and ‘You motherfuckers, I will do whatever I like. There is nothing you can do about it. The Australian government can do nothing for you.’ ”

Local staff have confirmed the beatings to me, adding: “Things are getting worse with the locals. It’s pretty bad right now.”

Malek says that one night, drunk locals made their way into one of the houses for unaccompanied minors. He’s fearful that it will happen at his house soon. “Nauru is terrible. It is very, very hard. And very, very hot. School is under a tent, no air-conditioner. People get very angry in the hot. We cannot properly wash our clothes because there is not enough water. This country is bad. It is broken. And we are being treated like prisoners, like we’re the most criminal in the world.”

Malek sounds resigned. There’s an awful heaviness to his voice. And he has no idea about his future on the tiny phosphate rock. For now, he is still going to school. But the education standards are rudimentary. “I don’t know what I will do.”

Hopes lie with Moss report

There is a thick band of mediocrity binding these claims: blank-faced communications officers unhappily aware of the irony of their title, or glibly contented with their attenuated proximity to power. These hacks’ job is to lacquer cowardice – to delay and distract; to relay and refer; to reflexively squirt blandishments in lieu of engagement. It is a small and sour imagination that comprises this vanguard. And it is a vampiric existence – a constant subtraction from the common good. 

It is hoped that Philip Moss’s report, due next month, might provide an antidote to the spin and unresponsiveness of Canberra. Moss, the former integrity commissioner, was appointed by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison to investigate claims of child abuse in the Nauru camps, and to examine claims that Save the Children staff have been coaching detainees to fabricate stories. Moss will face the same difficulties detailed in this story – the frustrating lack of accountability. Unlike during his time as integrity commissioner, he will find porous systems in Nauru: a lack of legislation, stability, vetting and record keeping. Moss is now in the place so well described by these letters – a place where moral squalor is almost encouraged by how closed it all is. 

There are rumours that Moss’s staff have been shocked by conditions in the camps, and that Moss has personally intervened to correct behaviour by guards. We will wait and see. Unfortunately for the authors of these letters their allegations will not be investigated by him. Moss’s remit doesn’t extend that far. But what he will explore, it is hoped, are the awful conditions that led to these letters being written in the first place.

Postscript: Almost 48 hours after deadline, The Saturday Paper received the following statement from Immigration Minister Scott Morrison: “I have been advised the allegation has been referred to the Nauruan police. However the department has advised there is currently no evidence at this stage to support the allegations.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 15, 2014 as "Fear and abuse: the Nauru letters". Subscribe here.

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

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