“These girls have stories that would make the biblical movies that we grew up on look tame,” Pamela Curr told a forum on women in Nauru in Sydney on February 29.
The journey of women seeking asylum in Australia is filled with misery, fear, shame, sexual harassment, vulnerability and torture. It is a story of survival against all the odds meeting an Australian government with a detention system designed to be worse than what they are fleeing from.
Many women flee gender-based violence in countries such as Somalia, which is rife with civil war; abusive or forced marriages in Iran; and state-sanctioned rape of Tamil women by the Sri Lankan army. When they embark on the dangerous boat journey to Australia they are again at risk of sexual violence.
The reintroduction of temporary protection visas for refugees, which do not allow for family reunions, means that for some women, coming to Australia by boat is their only hope of being reunited with their partners.
By the time they reach Australia, Curr said, they “know about bombs and villages and brothers and fathers beheaded. These women have survived horrific stories and made their way across the sea only to wind up on Nauru.”
Thea, a former Save the Children worker on Nauru, described her initial experience of stepping into the processing centre: “Everything seemed designed to take away the dignity of any person and it's so hard to describe the hell that place was.”
Curr said: “The UN has documented the conditions necessary for keeping women safe in these vulnerable situations in camps. They have been absolutely ignored in every respect on Nauru.”
There are documented accounts of sexual harassment by Nauruan guards, including threatening to rape them when they leave the centre. Male guards, often drunk, stand around the toilets in the single women's compound leaving women afraid to enter. Australian guards are believed to be trading marijuana for sexual favours.
Thea spoke about how pregnant women are “forced to endure intolerable living environments, hot mouldy tents, deprivation of much needed nourishment and lack of food when needed. Toilets are located far away from their tents over hot, stony, uneven ground. Women spoke of falling down on the uneven surface or being scared to go to the toilet at night due to the distance and outside threats.”
The ABC's Latelinereported that at least 20 women have been raped or sexually assaulted in the past year. But Curr believes many more women have been attacked. “I can confirm there is underreporting. For some of these women, the last thing they want to do is tell their husbands [they were raped].”
Curr explained that women are put in demountable houses scattered across the island without guards or proper locks. They lack safe transportation around the island and often have to walk through the bush. “This is how these girls are getting raped, getting abused, just on their way to the supermarket. They're not even safe there.”
Refugee children are not even safe at school, with at least one reported assault at school on a refugee child every 13 days. Female students face regular sexual harassment and often entirely disengage with education.
Thea spoke about mothers who feel “powerless to protect their girls from sexual harassment and the dangers present in the detention centre and the community. They thought that by fleeing they were protecting their children.”
Attempts to seek justice through the Nauruan police or courts are usually useless. To this day, noone has been successfully prosecuted in Nauru for sexually assaulting a refugee woman.
The Nauruan police force has been accused of corruption and the Australian Federal Police only sent two officers to investigate allegations of sexual assault more than a year after they were made.
This is in stark contrast to the swift response the AFP made to claims of leaked information about what goes on in the processing centre.
Many women feel that speaking up about sexual assault is not worth it as it would increase their vulnerability in the community and lead to accusations that they were making up stories of sexual assault to be allowed into Australia.
Nauru is deliberately designed to be hell on Earth. As Curr said: “When you examine the evidence, you can see there is a deliberate policy of ensuring these women's lives are as miserable as possible.”
This is the Australian government's policy of deterrence in action.