March 23, 2015

Human rights

A lawless hellhole

By Nick Feik

The Moss review into allegations of the sexual abuse of asylum seekers on Nauru was released, in redacted form, within hours of the announcement of the death of former prime minister Malcolm Fraser.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton bridled at the insinuation that the timing of the release was a ploy to bury the findings of the damaging report – it was “appalling” to even suggest it, he said. Yet his colleague Michaelia Cash, the assistant minister for immigration, confirmed more than a month ago that the government had been in possession of the final report since 9 February.

It’s little wonder the government chose late afternoon of a Friday to drop the report on a distracted media. What the Moss review reveals is shocking, though not surprising. By any analysis, the detention facility described in the report is a lawless hellhole. There are no institutional protections for asylum seekers residing there. Philip Moss, the former integrity commissioner appointed to head the investigation, recounts episode after episode of abuse: the sexual assault and harassment of women and children; guards threatening to rape detainees; countless reports of self-harm, including by minors; the list goes on and on.

Again and again the report’s descriptions of alleged criminal behaviour end with the line that the matter in question was referred to the Nauruan police. As we know from too many previous incidents, this is tantamount to these incidents being ignored. The Australian government maintains it is not legally responsible for crimes committed against those it detains. Yet no one even pretends that the Nauruan justice system is capable of handling cases like this. For much of 2014, Nauru’s judicial system didn’t seem to function at all, its chief justice, Geoffrey Eames, and only magistrate, Peter Law, having been barred from the country in January of that year. The police have demonstrated they have neither the resources nor inclination to investigate such crimes properly anyway.

One example is enough to describe the amoral madness of this situation. An Iranian detainee, a single mother living in a “family camp” tent, alleged in the middle of last year that she had been raped. Before the incident, she had warned immigration officials, friends and caseworkers of the unwanted attention that she was receiving from another detainee. Nothing was done.

Many detainees refrain from reporting such crimes, fearing it will ruin their chances of getting to Australia, but she didn’t. When she was raped, she told her caseworkers, and despite the threat of retaliation by other detainees, she eventually asked that the police be called in. Almost immediately, the alleged perpetrator was granted refugee status and released into the Nauruan community. The police deemed there was insufficient evidence to pursue the matter, and the investigation has gone nowhere.

In an open letter, obtained by the Monthly, she later wrote: “I beg you, please help me otherwise I will hurt myself. My underage son has sewn his lips together not because of my problem – I didn’t let him know – but because of difficulties here.” She’s still in the camp, many months later.

If she is granted refugee status, she will be released into the same tiny community in which her alleged rapist now lives.

The government has known about these incidents all along – every such episode is logged in reports written on the island and passed on to the immigration department. All along, the government has put great energy into covering up these occurrences.

In late September 2014, following a message from then immigration minister Scott Morrison telling detainees they would never be settled in Australia, the tensions in the camp escalated markedly. There was a rise in the number of self-harm incidents, multiple threats of suicide attempts and a mass protest.

Media reports of the troubles were coming thick and fast, at which point the department tried a new tactic.

“What can we do for a circuit breaker?” was how one departmental officer described their thinking, according to the Moss review.

“(And) we came up with a whole bunch of things that I think were successful. They weren’t successful in ending the protest, but they were successful in reducing the interest in participation in them.”

What the officer meant, it soon transpired, was that department wanted to stop the flow of information out of Nauru. In other words, detainees’ cries for help might cease if no one in the wider world could hear them.

The department then approached the staff of Wilson Security to help. As Lee Mitchell, a senior intelligence analyst for Wilson Security, told ABC TV’s 7.30, his company was requested to provide “anything you’ve got on Save the Children” (STC).

As it turned out, Wilson Security had very little. It suspected STC staff had leaked information to news organisations, and reported as much to the department on 30 September. The intelligence report cited, among other things, an article in the Australian and a tweet by an Al Jazeera journalist (which, as it turned out, was misinterpreted) to conclude that STC workers may have been encouraging and coaching detainees to self harm. It suspected STC workers had been leaking information, but had no evidence to support this.

The department, at the behest of Scott Morrison, used this report to justify a request for a list of implicated STC workers. Wilson Security began work on the evening of 1 October, and handed over the list to the department on 2 October, but stated they had no firm evidence to back up the details of any specific allegation.

In the course of the review, representatives of Wilson Security told Moss that they believed once the names had been provided to the department, investigations would ensue. No such thing occurred. Instead, the department signed a notice to remove the STC workers the same day they received the list. Then either the department or Scott Morrison’s office leaked the “intelligence” document to the Daily Telegraph. The following day, 3 October, Morrison fronted the media to accuse the STC workers of fabricating stories and coaching asylum seekers to self harm. The headlines, which the day before had been about the abuse of women and children, were suddenly referring to orchestrated plots to undermine the government’s policies.

Departmental officers told the Moss review that, “the issuing of the removal notice in relation to the Save the Children staff members had the effect of ending the protest action ... One expression used was that it acted as a ‘circuit breaker’.”

When Philip Moss raised the not inconsiderable problem that there never was any evidence against the STC workers, he received this response from a departmental officer: “Now there are two ways you can look at that. Either the ten were ten who may have been doing things that were inappropriate or beyond their contract, and that was exactly what needed to be done. Or, the removal of ten people, irrespective of who they were and what they did ... created a shock and everybody – who may or may not have been involved in other things – sort of shut down.”

The workers lost their jobs and were eventually let go by the company. They have permanent stains on their employment records, and may face travel restrictions, among other consequences. They still don’t know what they are alleged to have done, or why they were even on the list in the first place. Most are too scared to speak publicly about the episode, believing they would face criminal prosecution if they did.

“Occasionally, I dare say, things happen,” was Tony Abbott’s response to the Moss review. “Things” here is a byword for rape, physical assault, multiple suicide attempts, children sewing their lips together, people living without privacy in hot, crowded, filthy, mouldy tents for going on two years, suffering water shortages and lacking adequate medical and psychological care.

“In any institution you get things that occasionally aren’t perfect,” said Abbott. The only thing the government has come close to perfecting in Nauru is a system for destroying people, and a means to absolve itself of legal responsibility while doing so.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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