Sex with under-age detainees and pressure to cover up abuse show Nauru’s dysfunction goes well beyond the Moss review. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Nauru abuse goes further than the Moss review

Former immigration minister Scott Morrison.
Former immigration minister Scott Morrison.
Credit: AAP Image

Humidity is always trapped beneath the vinyl canvas tents. A thick and hateful thing, unrelieved by halting airconditioners, or untouched by them at all. And trapped beneath these tents are men, women and children ensnared in a wicked environment.

This week I spoke to a former Save the Children staff member who had worked at the Nauru asylum seeker processing centre, and heard that expatriate security guards – employed by private contractor Wilson – were having relationships with detained teenage girls. “We saw proof of this,” the former officer told me. “We saw text messages the guards had sent the girls. There were at least four guards I know of, and some of the girls were under-age.

“The girls were desperate to keep the relationships secret. They were extremely frightened of people finding out. They also appeared very reliant upon the affection of these men.”

It’s a deeply disturbing allegation, only touched upon in the Moss review into conditions at the centre, released just last week despite being submitted to the government at the start of February. It echoes Philip Moss’s finding that for either cultural reasons or fear of reprisal there is significant underreporting of assaults – a long way from the initial suggestions that the reports were fabricated. In other words, there is likely more, not less, crime being committed against detainees, some of them children.

In the three processing centres, the vinyl tents are shared by families. In Regional Processing Centre 3, up to 22 asylum seekers can share one. Partitioning their beds are clear plastic sheets or nothing at all. There is no privacy.

In the two trips Moss made to Nauru’s regional processing centre, he was met with serial complaints: of the sexual exploitation of detainees by security staff, the degraded conditions of the camps, and the lack of privacy. He heard from one asylum seeker: “I always had suspicions that someone from at the back of the fences is watching my room. Until last night I came and I was taking my clothes off and the light was on and they were watching me from outside. And then when I turned the light off and went to bed, I felt like something has been caught in the fan. I thought that it might be some sort of insect. Someone was using a stick to kind of part the tent and I hanged my towel there, but they were trying to move the towel and move the tent so they could see inside.”

These makeshift camps have only a periodic water supply, inadequate provision of toilets, zero privacy and negligible regulatory oversight. In his report, Moss wonders if such an environment was contributing to the worrying developments among the children, in particular noting that “the lack of privacy may be a factor in the sexualised behaviour of some children in the centre through observing adult sexual activity”.

“The review,” Moss states, “became aware of several cases of inappropriate sexual behaviour by minors” and lists seven such examples.

The former Save the Children staff member confirmed a worrying pattern of children emulating adults.

“There was certainly the sexualisation of children. Young children were acting out in school in inappropriate ways. It raised questions of what they had seen, or what had happened before. One unaccompanied minor was caught trying to open the door to a cubicle in the children’s toilet at the school. This same unaccompanied minor was also seen by teachers to ask the younger children at the school to reach into the pockets of his pants to get lollies.

“Some other behaviour witnessed was sexualised relationships between young children at the school, girls as young as 10 caught engaging in physical acts with boys at the school – the boys were usually around 16 years old.”

It seems that it’s not just sexual behaviour the children are emulating. I also heard stories of children secretly discussing the best ways to leave the island. They had witnessed self-harm and suicide attempts and concluded that was the way to get to Australia. Recently, a young boy swallowed a screw. He thought it was his ticket. It’s what the adults did.

1 . Lack of accountability

Importantly, the Moss review also examined two specific allegations of rape of two adult female transferees, and the allegation that “on occasions women have been forced to expose themselves to sexual exploitation in exchange for access to showers and other amenities”.

One of the allegations of rape had already been investigated by Nauruan police, Moss notes, while the other allegation was made exclusively to the review and the alleged victim asked that it not be referred to authorities for cultural reasons.

These dire scenarios are encouraged by inadequate regulations. Moss reports that “arrangements for identifying, reporting, responding to, mitigating and preventing incidents of sexual and other physical assaults at the centre can be improved”, which strikes as understatement. One issue is the structural lack of accountability for local staff. “Wilson seemed incapable of reprimanding Nauruan staff because of the local employment quota, and they wanted to keep the Nauruan government on side,” the former Save the Children officer told me.

The lack of accountability is reinforced by the Nauruan police force’s indifference towards – or contempt for – the camp and its detainees. The Moss review is filled with references to improved communication between the likes of Wilson and local police, for example, but little on Nauruan capacity or interest in law enforcement.

“Nauruan police treat camps essentially as Australian land,” the Save the Children officer said. “They don’t want to get involved. They don’t want to get their hands dirty. I also have sources high in the Nauruan government, and I’m told that the head of police loathes refugees. That’s the state of policing there. So you have the absurdity of Wilson policing themselves. Not wanting to upset the Nauruan government, and not really having much involvement or oversight from police.”

In total, Moss makes 19 recommendations to the Australian government, notably on improving privacy and regulatory oversight and developing a meaningful, constructive presence in the camps from Nauruan police. 

2 . Morrison's bait and switch

On October 3 last year, then immigration minister Scott Morrison announced an inquiry into the Nauruan camps. Former integrity commissioner Philip Moss would undertake it. It came during a bleak period for the processing centre – there was a spate of self-harm and suicide attempts, and a riot that caused much damage to infrastructure. About this time, Nauruan hostility to the refugees increased. The place became, if it wasn’t already, a tinderbox. It was also a time when multiple accounts of rape, sexual harassment and exploitation were reaching Australia. Many of the allegations were made against security company Wilson, but some also against refugees themselves.

The allegations were appalling, and Morrison said as much, but in the same breath he questioned the validity of them. Among the stench of systemic violence, Morrison raised a counterclaim: that Save the Children staff, on Nauru to provide welfare and teaching services, may have been coaching refugees to invent grievances and encouraging them to harm themselves. “If people want to be political activists, that’s their choice,” Morrison said, “but they don’t get to do it on the taxpayer’s dollar and working in a sensitive place like Nauru … The public don’t want to be played for mugs.”

It was a bait and switch, and it worked. Suddenly the reporting of mistreatment disappeared, replaced by criticism of an apparent conspiracy between aid workers and the leftist media. On the same day as Morrison’s statement, The Daily Telegraph ran a front-page story on the crooked behaviour of aid workers under the banner headline “Truth overboard”. The subhead read, “Exclusive: Nauru child abuse claim ‘fabricated’.”

Journalist Simon Benson had dutifully carried the government’s water, and 10 Save the Children staff were removed from the island without even knowing the details of the allegations, much less facing an investigation or being offered the right of reply. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection acted swiftly, unilaterally and unaccountably – the 10 were gone, without ever knowing why.

“They were treated like criminals,” the former Save the Children officer told me. “They were taken to the hotel, banished from the centre, and told they were being taken back to Australia. It seemed so random – there was nothing connecting these people. It’s also crazy that anyone here would have confected claims of abuse because we had personally witnessed so much of it. There is literally no reason to invent anything.

“As for coaching refugees to harm, it was frustrating because Save the Children were the only ones there who cared. It was a low blow. And this from the department that told us not to include certain incriminating things in our reports. They asked us to change our reports.”

I was stunned. The staff member was saying it was common for the Australian Immigration Department to ask that incident reports be altered to appear less damning. I asked the former officer to clarify the allegation.

“They simply wouldn’t accept them if they contained information they didn’t want in there.”

Save the Children were caught between an Australian government pegging its credibility to the wisdom of offshore detention, a security company contemptuous of their work, and a local police force indifferent to monitoring and investigating allegations of crime. But this isn’t what appeared on The Daily Telegraph’s front page.

The waters were now muddied. The long comments thread on the “Truth overboard” article was filled with righteous indignation against the aid workers. “If these allegations are correct then the govt should immediately cease funding this Save the Children organization. To use children to further your own political ideology is beneath contempt.” And, “Lefties motto is never let the truth get in the way of a tax payer funded story.”

If it was intended as distraction, it worked. A cynic might call it a masterstroke. The story changed for Morrison’s benefit. The heat of a serious crisis was replaced by a blazing straw man. But last week, the Moss review could find no evidence of misconduct by Save the Children. It also found that the intelligence report from Wilson – the government’s contracted security and logistics company – which generated the allegations, was basically useless.

The September 28 Wilson report stated that: “It is considered likely that refugee advocates are engaged with asylum seekers and refugees to manufacture a situation where ‘evidence’ can be obtained of the unsuitability of Nauru for processing and resettlement to pursue a political and ideological agenda in Australia.” But applying the admiralty code – the standard matrix for rating the assuredness of intelligence – Wilson rated the report an F6; that is, neither reliability nor truth could be judged.

The cynicism or prematurity of the Telegraph’s article was exposed, but it served its purpose at the time. Last week, the Moss review recommended that “the department should review its decision to have the Save the Children staff members removed”.

3 . Contractors Wilson allowed to investigate itself

But the Moss review missed some things, namely the absurdity of allowing Wilson to police itself. The allegations of rape and assault were largely made against Wilson staff – the allegations detailing the supposed malfeasance of Save the Children came from the same organisation. “It was vindictive,” the Save the Children officer tells me. “There was a vindictiveness against our organisation. And it was a shame, because it could make people more reluctant to file incident reports in the future when they knew they could be sacked for doing their jobs.

“There was always conflict between the different stakeholders there. In particular after the 10 were removed, and it became obvious that Wilson had made the allegations. It fractured the relationship further. Not to dramatise too much, but the security guards basically treated us like detainees, too. Barking orders and pushing us around. It was tense and bitter.”

While Wilson questioned the “suitability” of Save the Children staff, the overwhelming evidence questions the suitability of Wilson themselves. The Moss review heard multiple allegations of assault by security staff, and finds it “likely” there were occasions that some staff were trading marijuana for sexual favours.

Despite the Moss review, the government refuses to issue an apology to Save the Children. The 10 staff members in question are now seeking legal damages. In response to whether he owed them an apology, Morrison said, “I’m happy to deal with things I’ve said and done, absolutely, but I don’t feel there is a need where people have distorted… things I’ve said in the past. That’s a matter for them to explain. I ensured these things were investigated.”

The current immigration minister, Peter Dutton, has remained almost silent on the review, released on the day Malcolm Fraser died. Prime Minister Tony Abbott, meanwhile, has undergone an odd transformation in three days, from adopting the classic hedge of saying he hadn’t properly read it, to the glib dismissal of “occasionally you get things that aren’t perfect”, to acknowledging that the allegations are “disturbing”. The initial response seems predicated upon the hope that the whole story would soon be forgotten; the latter proof that it wasn’t.

The dispiriting thing here for aid workers is the actual damage that is being done to them. From a separate source this week I heard how former Save the Children staff are likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. After witnessing violence and suicide attempts, some staff are experiencing nightmares, flashbacks and anxiety. “They went there as teachers, or had other backgrounds where they hadn’t experienced this kind of thing,” I was told. “They’re suffering.”

These are the people who have been smeared. Early this week, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young felt confident of a supportive vote on a senate inquiry. At time of writing she is now unsure of the numbers.

Meanwhile, Moss has referred allegations of rape, exploitation and inappropriate relationships to Nauruan police and the department of immigration. The pity is that these authorities would seem hopelessly compromised – uninterested and incompetent police, and a department whose independence has been seriously questioned.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 28, 2015 as "Decoy and secrecy on Nauru abuse".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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