Thousands of leaked files that document the abuse of refugees in an Australian detention center on the island of Nauru have raised fresh calls for the government to reform its policy for asylum seekers.
Two United Nations agencies, as well as dozens of human rights, legal, religious, and medical organizations, have insisted Australia improve or end its practice of detaining refugees on the South Pacific island, following the leak of 2,000 incident reports The Guardian published Wednesday. The reports include sexual abuse, assault, and attempted self-harm, including 59 assaults on children.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was “gravely concerned” by the allegations raised in the leaked files, and said all refugees and asylum seekers should be moved off Nauru “to humane conditions,” according to the Guardian.
“The documents released are broadly consistent with UNHCR’s longstanding and continuing concerns regarding mental health, as well as overall conditions for refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru,” the commissioner said.
Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection said in a statement that all cases had been forwarded to the Nauru police for investigation, and that the Australian government "takes seriously its role in supporting the government of Nauru to protect children from abuse, neglect or exploitation."
"Many of the incident reports reflect unconfirmed allegations or uncorroborated statements and claims – they are not statements of proven fact," the department said, adding "The Department currently has no evidence to suggest that service providers have under-reported or mis-reported incidents in Nauru."
Nauru, a tiny island republic more than 2,500 miles from Australia, has a detention center housing refugees from countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia; as of late June, 442 refugees were living in Nauru. Under Australian policy, any refugee who attempts to reach the country by sea without a valid visa is held offshore on Nauru or another camp on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and will never be allowed into Australia.
Between 2000 to 2013, 1,900 asylum seekers died trying to reach Australia.
Australia has consistently said the policy is in place to discourage refugees from attempting the dangerous sea crossing – and says that it has worked as intended. The policy was strengthened further in 2013, when a record 20,000 asylum seekers arrived on Australian shores.
But the latest leaks allege other dangers on Nauru were repeatedly ignored.
Among the 2,000 incident reports are multiple cases of detainees cutting themselves, security officers propositioning and harassing female detainees, and dozens of abuses against children. There are 159 reports of threatened self-harm involving children alone.
In addition to condemnation from the UNHCR, independent organizations have insisted Australia conduct a formal investigation into practices and abuse prevention on Nauru. Australia currently provides the Nauru government with support to investigate crime allegations, according to the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
Australia has previously been the subject of criticism for its attitude towards asylum seekers on Nauru, as John Power wrote for The Christian Science Monitor in March:
The Australian Human Rights Commission and international advocacy groups, such as Amnesty International, have blasted the government for its reliance on far-flung detention centers. Critics have warned about the centers' squalid conditions and the effects of prolonged detention on children. Concerned staff members and independent monitors have reported a rash of attempted suicides and multiple cases of sexual assault, including against children.
Last week, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released a report that accused Australia of ignoring or even sponsoring abuse on Nauru. Eighty four detainees interviewed by human rights workers reported being denied medical care, subjected to poor living conditions, and being targeted victims of violent crimes. Australia criticized the interviewers, a senior director for research at Amnesty International, and a senior counsel for Human Rights Watch, because they didn’t disclose information about their employers when they visited Nauru, which strictly limits the ability to report on or photograph conditions at the detainment center.
Under the Australian Border Force Act of 2015, it is a criminal offense for employees of Australia's immigration department to report conditions at the offshore detention centers to the media or outside organizations, as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported last May, raising fears that it would be difficult to hold the centers accountable for abuse.
Many have compared the allegations in the leaked files to revelations of the abuse of juvenile detainees in the North Territory of Australia, which led to an investigation that started in July, according to The New York Times.
Kristina Keneally, a former Australian politician and Guardian columnist, laid out recommendations for moving forward in an op-ed published with the Nauru files.
We must demand the government appoint a children’s commissioner for Nauru who can independently monitor and report on the wellbeing of children on the island. We must insist the government makes reporting abuse in offshore detention mandatory. We must advocate the government overturn the laws silencing healthcare professionals and others from speaking out about children on Nauru. Those things aren’t enough, but each would be a good start.
This report contains material from Reuters.