The devastating trauma and abuse inflicted on children held by Australia in offshore detention has been laid bare in the largest cache of leaked documents released from inside its immigration regime.
More than 2,000 leaked incident reports from Australia’s detention camp for asylum seekers on the remote Pacific island of Nauru – totalling more than 8,000 pages – are published by the Guardian in August. The Nauru files set out as never before the assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm attempts, child abuse and living conditions endured by asylum seekers held by the Australian government, painting a picture of routine dysfunction and cruelty.
The Guardian’s analysis of the files reveal that children are vastly over-represented in the reports. More than half of the 2,116 reports – a total of 1,086 incidents, or 51.3% – involve children, although children made up only about 18% of those in detention on Nauru during the time covered by the reports, May 2013 to October 2015. The findings come just weeks after the brutal treatment of young people in juvenile detention in the Northern Territory was exposed, leading to the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, announcing a wide-ranging public inquiry.
The reports range from a guard allegedly grabbing a boy and threatening to kill him once he is living in the community to guards allegedly slapping children in the face. In September 2014 a teacher reported that a young classroom helper had requested a four-minute shower instead of a two-minute shower. “Her request has been accepted on condition of sexual favors. It is a male security person. She did not state if this has or hasn’t occurred. The security officer wants to view a boy or girl having a shower.”
Some reports contain distressing examples of behavior by traumatized children. According to a report from September 2014, a girl had sewn her lips together. A guard saw her and began laughing at her. In July that year a child under the age of 10 undressed and invited a group of adults to insert their fingers into her vagina; in February 2015 a young girl gestured to her vagina and said a male asylum seeker “cut her from under”.
In the files there are seven reports of sexual assault of children, 59 reports of assault on children, 30 of self-harm involving children and 159 of threatened self-harm involving children.
The reports show extraordinary acts of desperation. One pregnant woman, after being told she would need to give birth on Nauru in October 2015, was agitated and in tears. “I give my baby to Australia to look after,” she pleaded with a caseworker, adding: “I don’t want to have my baby in PNG, the [Nauru hospital] or have it in this dirty environment.”
The files raise stark questions about how information is reported on Nauru, one of Australia’s two offshore detention centres for asylum seekers who arrive by boat. They highlight serious concerns about the ongoing risks to children and adults held on the island. They show how the Australian government has failed to respond to warning signs and reveal sexual assault allegations – many involving children – that have never been previously disclosed.
The most damning evidence emerges from the words of the staff working in the detention centre themselves – the people who compile the reports. These caseworkers, guards, teachers and medical officers have been charged with caring for hundreds of asylum seekers on the island.
The publication is likely to renew calls for an end to the political impasse that has seen children in Australia’s care languish on Nauru for more than three years.
Nauru is the world’s smallest island state, home to fewer than 10,000 people. Australia supplies aid and buys services from Nauru’s government and companies, leading to accusations Nauru is effectively a “client state”. On the last official count at the end of June, 442 people – 338 men, 55 women and 49 children – were held in the Nauru regional processing centre. The other offshore centre, on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, was holding 854 people, all men. Australia’s policy has been criticized regularly by the UN.
The Guardian is publishing the files because it believes Australians have the right to know more about the regime at the Nauru and Manus centres, which costs Australian taxpayers $1.2bn a year.
The documents cover the period examined in a review into allegations of sexual assault, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into children in detention as well as the period examined by a Senate inquiry and beyond. They encompass the final days of Labor’s time in government and the ruling conservative Coalition’s time in office since September 2013.
In each successive inquiry, the Australian government and its contractors, including Broadspectrum (formerly Transfield Services) and its subcontractor Wilson Security, have maintained that they are improving conditions and reporting measures to raise the quality of life on the island.
But the files show a very different picture. Rather than serious events diminishing, they continued – and in some cases escalated – during the course of 2015. A vast number of incidents from across the timeframe have never before been reported.
Many asylum seekers held on Nauru were unable to leave the detention compounds during the period covered by the files. Some had been granted permission to leave on day trips but were closely monitored to ensure they returned before curfews. Those found to be refugees were released into the Nauruan community – yet still remain effectively detained on the remote island.
The primary evidence from the files backs up testimony from former immigration detention staff members interviewed by the Guardian as part of its investigation.
Access to Nauru is tightly controlled. Events on the island are reported sporadically through refugee advocates and whistleblowers, but the Australian government’s policy of shrouding its offshore detention centres in secrecy has prevented the reporting of many serious incidents. The Nauru files shatter that secrecy.
The Nauru Files | The Guardian UK (Interactive)
The Forgotten Children: Four Corners Visits Nauru | ABC News Australia (Full Video 42:50)
Nauru Files Reporting Team: Paul Farrell, Nick Evershed, Helen Davidson, Ben Doherty, Ri Liu, Anna Livsey, David Constable, Tom Ross, Josh Wall, Nikki Marshall, Merran Hitchick and Patrick Keneally
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