No Refuge: Australian Detention Centers on Nauru
By Nicole Hasham
Hawa* has no memory of her epileptic seizures. She relies on others to fill in the moments when her mind goes blank. But after a seizure in January 2016, Hawa knew, without a doubt, that she had been raped. The young African refugee lives on the remote Pacific island of Nauru, where she was sent to a primitive, controversial detention camp after being denied asylum in Australia. Hawa had stepped outside to make a phone call when the seizure hit. She realized that she had been raped, according to Australian Federal Court documents, because there was blood “in my body … and also … male discharge.” A few weeks later came more devastating news: the rape had left Hawa pregnant. What followed would underscore the systemic trauma, inhumane treatment, and lack of protection faced by asylum seekers sent by Australia to detention camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG)—a policy that has attracted international condemnation, including from the United Nations.
Nauru is a tiny, barren island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, about 2,800 miles from Australia and far from international scrutiny. Refugees are housed in the community on temporary visas, where they live on very little money and frequently suffer violence and discrimination at the hands of the local residents, while asylum seekers live in an open detention facility. Australian parliamentary inquiries, independent reviews, and the accounts of asylum seekers and refugees have long revealed a horrific picture of violence, assault, and daily humiliation in Nauru, particularly against women. Complaints to local police rarely lead to proper investigations, medical care is often inadequate, and refugees and asylum seekers live without hope—denied the prospect of ever finding safe haven in Australia.
Refugee advocate Pamela Curr, of the Melbourne-based Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, says that Nauru is “a dangerous place for everyone: men, women, and children. However, women have been systematically exposed to violence, both physical and sexual. They have been raped and assaulted—this is documented—but still there is no police protection provided, and no Nauruan has been charged with an assault of a non-Nauruan.”
Hawa sought protection in Australia following a life marked by extreme hardship. As a teenager, she watched her sister being murdered, and she later fled an abusive ex-husband, and her homeland. But Nauru presented a new kind of horror. After the rape, Hawa could not sleep, suffered post-traumatic symptoms, and tried to drown herself. She also wanted desperately to terminate the pregnancy.
Abortion is illegal in Nauru, and Hawa wanted to have the procedure done in Australia, which she argued was responsible for her medical treatment. According to the June 2016 report Protection Denied, Abuse Condoned: Women on Nauru at Risk by the Australian Women in Support of Women on Nauru (AWSWN)—a group of researchers, journalists, lawyers, and refugee advocates—at least 12 women raped on Nauru have become pregnant and been flown to Australia for abortions. However, the Australian government, which denied that it had a responsibility to care for Hawa, ordered that she terminate the pregnancy in PNG, which is located almost 1,500 miles from Australia. Subsequently, the Federal Court ruled that Australia could not force Hawa to have the procedure in PNG, a poor country where the abortion would be neither safe nor legal.
Debate over the nation’s controversial treatment of asylum seekers has been featured heavily during the recent election campaign. Both major political parties broadly support the mandatory offshore detention of so-called “illegal maritime arrivals”—those who travel to Australia on unauthorized boats, usually via Indonesia, in search of protection or a better life. Struggling with a flood of arrivals and scores of tragic deaths at sea, the former Labor government reopened old offshore migrant camps on Nauru and at PNG’s Manus Island in 2012, hoping that the prospect of harsh detention conditions would deter asylum seekers from traveling to Australia. It is widely accepted that this policy, which the subsequent Liberal-National government adopted, played a major role in all but stopping the tide of asylum seekers making the perilous ocean journey.
As Europe struggles with its own migrant crisis, some say that Australia’s hardline stance may be the answer. But critics such as Daniel Webb, legal advocacy director at the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre, insist that the torment resulting from this policy means that it is neither a humane nor sustainable option. “I’ve sat face to face with women in Australia who have been sexually assaulted on Nauru, so terrified of being sent back that they can’t sleep,” he said. “I’ve met children who have taken their first steps and spoken their first words in Australia’s offshore detention camps—kids who have never known a day of freedom in their lives. It is a complex policy challenge, but being deliberately cruel to innocent people is not the solution.”
Aside from worries over their own safety, female migrants transferred to Nauru also fear for the welfare of their children and their unborn babies. In October 2015, Iranian woman Fairuza*, who was 34 weeks pregnant, reported being terrified of a potential caesarean section delivery; she had already suffered a miscarriage in detention. “We are very worried about the birth. There are no specialists in the hospital on Nauru. I saw the hospital, and it is very dirty … no hygiene. I can’t think about that. I can’t,” she told Australia’s Fairfax Media. Asylum seekers in the detention center live in stuffy, moldy tents, with little privacy. In such conditions, Fairuza said: “I can’t feel happy about this baby. In the tent it’s hot, with mice … how can I look after a small baby?”
All of this occurs under an official cloak of secrecy, which has been interpreted by critics as an attempt to prevent the emergence of damaging information about conditions on the island. Doctors, charity workers, and other former employees previously spoke out over the horrors they witnessed while working at the Australian government-funded camp. But this task became more difficult in July 2015, when the Australian government introduced a potential two-year prison sentence for detention center workers who disclose information obtained from their work. The government denies that the law prevents workers from speaking out on matters of public interest, and claims that whistleblower laws protect them. It insists that the offshore detention regime is preventing deaths at sea, and that medical care on Nauru is comparable to that in Australia. However, AWSWN maintains that the Australian government should repeal the secrecy laws and abide by international conventions relating to refugees and torture. It has also called on the government to close the camp on Nauru “as a matter of urgency,” bring the refugees and asylum seekers to Australia, and work with regional neighbors such as Indonesia and Malaysia on the processing of asylum seekers. Meanwhile, observers charge that the Nauru government’s May 2015 ban on Facebook and October 2015 restrictions on foreign media entering the country were designed to further limit information about the detention centers from being publicized.
With no end in sight to the torment, desperation among women on Nauru often turns to depression, and even self-harm. In May 2016, a young Somali woman set herself on fire—the second such self-immolation in a week; the first, a young Iranian man named Omid Masoumali, died. This female victim, known as Hodan, was flown to Australia for treatment. A former Australian teacher on Nauru who had taught Hodan told Fairfax Media that she was “a kind woman, a good friend and would never harm anyone. [She] used to come to English classes at night because she was too shy to come to normal day classes. Gradually, in her gentle voice, she told us tragic pieces of her past in Somalia. She wanted to learn, she longed for a future.”
* Their real names have been changed to protect their identities.