Email leak adds to evidence of abuses at Australian migrant detention center

Refugee children take part in a protest in March 2015 against their resettlement on Nauru and living conditions on the island. (Credit: Amnesty International/private)

Leaked documents published by The Guardian late Tuesday show more than 2,000 incident reports recorded at a detention center for migrants caught trying to enter Australia. The ‘Nauru Files’ show cases of self-harm, violence, child abuse and more that took place over a two-year period at the Nauru detention center. Two refugees set themselves on fire in early May to protest the terrible conditions at the detention center.

“This leak has laid bare a system of ‘routine dysfunction and cruelty’ that is at once dizzying in its scale and utterly damning for the Australian authorities who tried so hard to maintain a veil of secrecy,” said Amnesty International’s Senior Director for Research Anna Neistat, in a statement responding to the leak. “Australia’s offshore processing of refugees must end, and all of the refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island must be resettled immediately and given the medical and psychological support they need.”

According to the Guardian’s analysis, slightly more than half of the reports involve children despite the fact that they represent less than 20 percent of the people in the Nauru detention center. Incidents recorded by staff at the center show both the physical and mental abuse that people endure while detained. The files also prove that the Australian government has withheld information about incidents on the island and the culture of secrecy has, in turn, led to incidents not being reported.

The Australian government sees it differently.

“The documents published today are evidence of the rigorous reporting procedures that are in place in the regional processing center – procedures under which any alleged incident must be recorded, reported and where necessary investigated,” said the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in a statement responding to the leak. “The Department currently has no evidence to suggest that service providers have under-reported or misreported incidents in Nauru.”

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The statement goes on to say that the Australian government works closely with the government of Nauru to “protect children from abuse, neglect or exploitation.” It points to the legal steps taken to prevent child abuse and said that Australia directly supports efforts to upgrade health and education facilities.

Australia spends more than $1 billion a year to run its offshore detention centers. The arrival of refugees and migrants by boats has become a major political issue in recent years. Governments run by both major political parties have sought to deal with the problem through deterrence. People who arrive illegally are not allowed to stay in Australia. The detention centers in Nauru and Manus, Papua New Guinea, are places to hold the arrested “boat people.”

Marjan, a refugee from Iran, after she got attacked last year in front of her house by two local men who hit her on the head with a metal bar. She got 8 stitches on her head in the hospital, but the police refused to open a case or take a statement; instead, they suggested, according to Marjan's husband that "maybe she hit herself."

Marjan, a refugee from Iran, after she got attacked last year in front of her house by two local men who hit her on the head with a metal bar. She got 8 stitches on her head in the hospital, but the police refused to open a case or take a statement; instead, they suggested, according to Marjan’s husband that “maybe she hit herself.” (Credit: Amnesty International)

Human rights groups and the U.N. have condemned the practice. The High Commissioner for Human Rights at the U.N. said he was alarmed by the growing anti-asylum seeker rhetoric in Australia and by the actions taken against refugees arriving in the country.

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“The world’s refugees do not need crueler deterrence measures. They need safe and viable pathways to protection. That’s what Australia should be working with the U.N. and our neighbors to develop,” said commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, at a press conference in June 2015.

And just days before the file leak, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released new information from its investigation into the Nauru center. It accused the Australian government of not addressing abuses at the center, said there were cases where people in need were denied medical care and found there is little mental health support. Neistat characterized the situation as “cruel in the extreme.”

“Australia’s atrocious treatment of the refugees on Nauru over the past three years has taken an enormous toll on their well-being,” said Michael Bochenek, senior counsel on children’s rights at Human Rights Watch, who conducted the investigation on the island for the organization. “Driving adult and even child refugees to the breaking point with sustained abuse appears to be one of Australia’s aims on Nauru.”

The cases of self-immolation show that people are reaching their breaking point. One of the people, a 23-year-old man named Omid, said that he was tired and could not take it anymore, before setting himself on fire. The Nauru files show a similar case involving a young girl who sewed her lips shut. Activists say these incidents prove that the conditions in the camp and the inability to leave are taking a major mental toll that is not being addressed.

“People here don’t have a real life. We are just surviving. We are dead souls in living bodies. We are just husks. We don’t have any hope or motivation,” said one woman detained at Nauru in an interview, according to Amnesty.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.