‘Things happen’ – Abbott dismisses Nauru’s sexual assault crisis

Asylum Seekers at Nauru Detention Center plead for their freedom.
April 8, 2015

Former workers from the Nauru detention centre say the Australian government has “tolerated the physical and sexual assault of children, and the sexual harassment and assault of vulnerable women in the centre for more than 17 months”.

Refugees who have been released from the detention centre to live in the community have also faced ongoing violence. A woman reportedly called the Nauruan police on April 8 after being sexually assaulted by men in a car.

An Iranian man was attacked by two Nauruan locals with a knife on March 31; he was hospitalised with wounds to his hand and shoulder. The day before, another refugee was beaten, after Nauru residents harassed two women he was walking with.

The Refugee Action Coalition said: “Attacks on refugees have become increasingly common in the aftermath of the mass arrests of refugees who were peacefully protesting against offshore processing [on March 4].

“Although one man lost his eye in a rock-throwing attack last November, there are concerns that the knife attack could represent a new level of violence directed against refugees on the island.”

Australia’s response has been to ignore the persistent and worsening attacks on people it forced to resettle on the impoverished island. When refugees protested against their treatment, immigration minister Peter Dutton called the actions “provocative” and supported the police’s disproportionate response of arresting more than 200 people.

“If people breach the law then they should expect to face the consequences of their actions,” Dutton said of the protesters’ desperate and largely peaceful actions.

Such consequences don’t extend to perpetrators of institutionalised physical and sexual abuse though.

An open letter signed by 24 people from International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) and Save the Children said the immigration department, including the minister, has been aware of abuse in its Nauru detention centre for more than a year, but refused to remove victims or their perpetrators from the camp.

The Australian government contracted IHMS and Save the Children to provide medical and welfare services in the offshore detention camp.

Last year, 10 Save the Children staff were stood down from the facility after some workers blew the whistle on cases of child abuse, rape and assault. Their claims were discredited by former immigration minister Scott Morrison, who accused them of encouraging self-harm and protest among detainees. He then tasked Philip Moss to review the claims.

The Moss Review found many of the allegations of sexual and physical abuse to be substantially supported by evidence, but there was no evidence to support claims staff “encouraged” asylum seekers to protest.

The IHMS and Save the Children staff published the open letter to “inform the public” that Morrison, the department and all service providers knew about the systematic abuse long before the Moss Review, but that it was covered up.

They cited one case as an example: “In November 2013, a boy was sexually assaulted by a detention centre employee. The incident was substantiated and the allegations were also found to be credible in the [government-initiated] Moss Review.

“Former immigration minister Scott Morrison was notified of this assault. Despite this knowledge, the [immigration department] chose to keep this child in the detention centre where he was assaulted and remained at risk of further abuse and retaliation.

“Indeed, this child was subjected to further incidents of abuse while he was in detention.”

Several other cases of child abuse and “sexual exploitation of vulnerable women by detention centre staff” were treated with similar inaction.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott dismissed the child abuse claim by saying, “occasionally … things happen”.

“In any institution you get things that occasionally aren’t perfect. But … the most compassionate thing we can do is stop the boats.”

More “things” are set to happen, as the government refuses to stop sending refugees to the camp. At least 60 children detained in Australia are at risk of being sent back to Nauru at Dutton’s discretion.

The former and current staff of the Nauru camp have called for the immediate transfer of all asylum seekers in the camp to Australia. They have also asked Australians to support a Royal Commission into abuse allegations on Nauru.

A Senate inquiry has been set up to investigate the ramifications of the Moss review. The Inquiry is supported by the Greens and Labor. The Coalition government has labelled them “irresponsible”, saying that to examine substantial claims of abuse, assault and rape in a government-funded offshore camp would “put Australia’s international relations at risk for perceived political gain”.

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