There have been persistent and increasingly damaging reports of sexual violence and abuse against asylum seekers being held at Australia’s offshore detention center on the Pacific island of Nauru.
Many of them come from countries such as Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan, and many of them are women and children. Foreign journalists are banned from reporting on the situation of asylum seekers on Nauru. However, Australian journalist Julie Macken was so shocked by what she was hearing, she called an old contact, Pamela Curr at The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, to find out what more could be done.
That conversation sparked a six-month collaboration with several other leading humanitarian figures in Australia and produced an extensive report on conditions for female asylum seekers on Nauru. Published in June this year, it offers a damning picture of a detention facility and island in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.
Women & Girls Hub spoke to Curr and Macken about the lack of action for women on Nauru and ways to turn public opinion on asylum.
Women & Girls Hub: How bad is the situation on Nauru now?
Pamela Curr: I’m in contact with unaccompanied women, both living in the detention camps on Nauru, and those who have been given refugee status and are now living in the community on the island. These women [living outside the detention center] are particularly at risk and are targeted by the local men. Whenever they have to go out to the supermarket to buy food, they are often taken into the bush and raped. One woman was raped and then had petrol poured on her. She was set alight by her attackers. She managed to get to Australia for treatment, but even though she had refugee status, that wasn’t recognized by the Australian government, so she was sent to another detention center.
Julie Macken: Lots of people think Nauru is an island paradise in the Pacific and anyone would be lucky to live there. The fact is there will be other women who try to kill themselves or set themselves on fire in desperation before anything is done about this.
Women & Girls Hub: Why hasn’t more been done to close the facility down?
Curr: Sadly, despite the evidence, [the report] isn’t influencing Australian policy at all. They know people are being raped, but nothing seems to shock our cultural consciousness.
Macken: One of the biggest problems we face is we don’t have a human rights law in Australia, only common law, so the government can’t be held to account for what is going on. That is something we are trying to change.
Women & Girls Hub: Is it likely public opinion will eventually turn on the government on the refugee issue?
Curr: Increasingly Australians are becoming uncomfortable with the offshore camps. We’ve had several deaths in the camps. A woman was raped and became pregnant as a result. She was sent to Papua New Guinea, but abortion is illegal there and she needed specific medical help. We had to go to the courts to get her taken out of Papua New Guinea, but the Australian government was trying to find any other country, like New Zealand or Cambodia or Hong Kong, to take her. Eventually we got her brought to Australia for treatment.
Macken: Public opinion is turning. People are starting to see that what is happening there is wrong. But people also believe the propaganda about the need to stop people coming by boat because they will drown at sea.
Women & Girls Hub: How do you sustain interest in what’s happening on Nauru when you can’t get access to the people there? How do you gather evidence?
Curr: Women ring us, they WhatsApp us. Sometimes I get an interpreter on the phone and we have a three-way conversation. Then, when I have enough evidence, I can go to the immigration department to try and bring them to Australia for treatment. But recently, the [Australian] Border Force took over and they are making sure that no one can leave the island. The camps have effectively been turned into prison camps and are divided into small sections so people can no longer see each other.
Women & Girls Hub: Is there anything that can be done to reduce the risk of sexual violence on the island both for women in detention and those who have been settled outside the facility as refugees?
Curr: I have said many times [we should] put the women in an area with proper fencing and security guards, but the most simple protective methods are ignored. One woman was being attacked in her home at three in the morning by a drunk man who had broken in. She called for help but the security agency said they couldn’t help because they have been told not to go out after dark. The woman told me if she knew this is what would have happened to her, she would have preferred to die at home.
Women & Girls Hub: What will happen to the women currently being held on Nauru if the facility is closed?
Macken: So far only one person has been actually resettled outside the island and that was to Cambodia. The people who have been given refugee status only have it for five or 10 years, it is not a permanent situation, so what will happen to them after that?
Relations on the island with locals are also very tense. The island was pretty much a failed state before Australia built the detention center. It is only 7.7 square miles (20 square kilometers). It has been decimated by offshore mining. Wind spreads heavy metal toxins around the place. Locals are angry about their lack of opportunities, so why would they be kind to refugees sharing what little resources they have?
This story has been corrected. A previous version stated ‘One woman was raped and then poured petrol on herself’. In fact the woman’s attackers poured petrol on her and set her alight.