The Australian government is responsible for deliberate and systematic torture of refugees on Nauru and should be held accountable under international law, Amnesty International says in a major report following unprecedented access to the secretive island.
Amnesty says its report shows New Zealand must agree to take in some of the refugees. But Prime Minister John Key says Wellington will only take refugees through Australia rather than from Nauru – leading to a political stalemate.
In another development, an Australian government review of the ‘Nauru Files’ published by the Guardian media group shows 19 cases of violence and sexual assault – eight against children – were referred to Nauru’s police but there have been no prosecutions or convictions.
Amnesty said it interviewed 62 refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and more than a dozen current or former contract workers who delivered services on behalf of the Australian government for its report titled ‘Island of Despair’.
Evidence includes detailed allegations of recurrent self-harm and attempted suicide, children being hit by teachers and threatened with machetes by peers, deficient medical care and persecution like that which refugees had fled in their homelands.
The offshore processing regime was “explicitly designed to inflict incalculable damage on hundreds of women, men and children” as an act of deterrence, by isolating them “on a remote place from which they cannot leave, with the specific intention that these people should suffer harm,” Amnesty said.
Australia had shifted the goalposts on what other countries considered to be acceptable treatment of refugees, and had “already harmed global standards on refugee protection.”
The global human rights group visited Nauru for five days in July, and corroborated testimony from interviews using thousands of pages of medical reports and statements to police, and other data on the public record.
It painted a picture of a dysfunctional system where Australia exercised strict control but publicly passed the buck to Nauru, and where on-the-ground authorities lacked the power to make decisions without Canberra’s permission.
Dr Anna Neistat, Amnesty’s senior director of research who travelled to Nauru, said the report provided direct evidence of Australia’s responsibility for day-to-day decision-making, and that Australia should be held accountable for breaching the Convention Against Torture – with a remote possibility that officials could be prosecuted under international law.
“It’s the intentional nature of it,” she told Fairfax Media. “The Australian government is not even hiding the fact that the key purpose of this policy is deterrence. When you set up a system that inflicts deliberate harm as a deterrence, it’s really hard to find another name for it other than torture.”
Neistat, a 15-year veteran of crisis work in Syria, Yemen and Chechnya, said the Nauru regime was particularly galling because people’s suffering was absolutely unnecessary and shrouded in shocking secrecy.
“I was not prepared for what I saw, and definitely not prepared for what I heard,” she said.
Among the asylum seekers she interviewed were a Pakistani man who tried to kill himself twice in 10 weeks by dousing himself in petrol and drinking dishwashing liquid, an Iranian man who found his pregnant wife in the bathroom with rope marks on her neck, and a 13-year-old Afghan boy who attempted suicide multiple times using a knife, petrol and by drowning.
In a finding that mirrors a damning United Nations report two weeks ago, Amnesty warned Nauru was incapable of protecting children’s human rights. In one example, Nauru police hired a man convicted of raping a child four years ago.
On the ‘Nauru Files, Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection has released an analysis which confirmed the referrals to police.
Nauru police have not charged any person with an offence against an asylum seeker or refugee in three years of processing on the island.
This is despite a series of alleged assaults including reports of gang rapes that were reported to police, physical and sexual assaults on children, and repeated attacks on minors outside the detention centre. Many claims are supported by video and photographic evidence.
The department has spent months analysing the files: in effect a review of itself.
One of the major concerns in the files has been the practice of downgrading reports, where incidents that should be classified ‘critical’ or ‘major’ were lowered to ‘minor’ or ‘information’. Incidents were downgraded by the word ‘critical’ being crudely crossed and a lower classification scrawled over it.