By Azadeh Dastyari
On 10 August, The Guardian newspaper published the Nauru files, approximately 2000 leaked incident reports from the Australian funded and operated detention centre on Nauru where men, women and children seeking Australia’s protection from harm are selected by our government and sent indefinitely. The more than 8000 pages of accounts paint a picture of unbearable cruelty and deprivation that includes physical and sexual abuse, including sexual and physical abuse of children.
When confronted with the leaked reports, the Australian government’s response was predictably dismissive. The Prime Minister stated that reports were allegations and not findings and that the detainees are the responsibility of the Nauruan government. The Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton reiterated that this was an issue for Nauru and questioned the seriousness of the complaints and their validity.
These allegations are not new of course. An independent inquiry commissioned by the government conducted by former integrity commissioner Philip Moss, found credible allegations of sexual assault and child abuse in Nauru in early 2015. He stated that the accounts of abuse and harm reported to him were convincing. A report of a Senate Select Committee, published in August 2015 also discusses allegations of child abuse, sexual assault, rape and physical abuse of people transferred to Nauru by Australia. Amnesty International raised concerns regarding the detention of Australia’s asylum seekers in Nauru after a visit to the island as early as 2012 (as did UNHCR in 2013). There is substantial evidence that the detention of people transferred by Australia to Nauru is causing considerable harm. Evidence that cannot be so easily dismissed.
The often repeated mantra that Australia has no responsibility or duty to care for asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru is also preposterous. The detention of asylum seekers in Nauru is paid for entirely by Australia and it is Australia, not Nauru, that has contracted service providers to operate the detention facility in Nauru. Australia maintains a visible and active presence at the RPC at all times. In the words of the UNHCR:
it is clear that Australia has retained a high degree of control and direction in almost all aspects of the bilateral transfer arrangements. The Government of Australia funds the refugee status determination process which takes place in Nauru, seconds Australian immigration officials to undertake the processing and effectively controls most operational management issues.
The asylum seekers and refugees on the island would not be there had they not been personally selected by Australia, transferred there by Australia and kept there in a facility that could not operate without Australia. The abuse reported in the Nauru files could not take place were it not for our government’s policies and paid for by our tax dollars. The policy that has led to such abuse is extraordinarily expensive. According to Senate Estimates, Australia spent $1.24 billion in 2014-2015 alone on detaining asylum seekers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. This at a time when our government is tightening its belt in numerous areas and declaring an end to the ‘age of entitlement’.
So why does this expensive, cruel and inhumane policy of trapping men, women and children in Nauru continue?
Social media responded to the Australian government’s reaction to the Nauru files, in particular that of Peter Dutton, with outrage. There were many accusations of callousness, lack of empathy and brutality. There is a lack of leadership among our politicians. They could end the suffering of so many individuals in Australia’s care immediately if they wished to. The deflective nature of the response to allegations of abuse, including blaming the victims, is also highly problematic. However, refugees and asylum seekers in Nauru are not detained because of the personal whim of a few cruel individuals. They are there because of a policy regime, supported by both Labor and the Coalition, which makes their suffering inevitable. Every Prime Minister and every minister for immigration has dismissed calls for Australia’s offshore detention facilities to be shut down with the exception of Kevin Rudd and Chris Evans who closed the centre on Nauru in 2007. However, it was Kevin Rudd who made the regime even more pernicious in 2013 by announcing that no refugee processed in Nauru or Manus Island would be resettled in Australia.
This policy continues despite the politicians in power because subjecting vulnerable individuals to a regime that will rob them of hope and autonomy is accepted by many Australians. The politicians are to be blamed, yes, but only because they represent us as a people. Asylum seekers and refugees remain in offshore processing centres because our politicians believe that the Australian people want them to be there. Stopping the boats is a popular policy and cruelty goes some way to achieving this. We cannot claim to have no responsibility for what is happening with our tax dollars. It is our job to convince each other and our leaders that we want something different.
The task of demanding something different may be difficult. It requires Australians to accept that there is nothing exceptional about us as a country and that we have to do our fair share of helping refugees. It may mean that our tax dollars have to be spent in supporting agencies like UNHCR and assisting transit countries like Indonesia to establish robust refugee status determination procedures. It may require us to accept to help more people not only because of a moral obligation to do so but because we are legally required to provide sanctuary to those who have fled persecution. We may, as a people, have to demand that rather than dehumanising and demonising some of the most vulnerable people, we actually offer support and compassion.
Demanding something better and achieving change is hard but not impossible. It is easily broken into manageable tasks. It starts with us calling our politicians and asking that they end the policy of sending asylum seekers to Nauru and PNG. The hardest part, and the most effective, is talking loudly and openly about why we find the status quo unacceptable. We need to de-legitimise those who say that abuse is acceptable in any form for any reason or that anyone deserves such brutality. It starts with us and that is both a grave responsibility and an exhilarating opportunity.