Devastating trauma and abuse of children held by Australia in offshore detention has been revealed in the largest cache of leaked documents released from inside its immigration regime.
More than 2000 leaked incident reports from Australia’s detention camp for asylum seekers on the remote Pacific island of Nauru – totalling more than 8000 pages – have been published by the Guardian today.
The Guardian, published in British and international print editions and on UK, US and Australian websites, has a history of investigative journalism scoops. These include the 2011 phone hacking scandal, secret collection of US citizens’ phone records, and government surveillance of citizens from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The Guardian says it is publishing the files because it believes Australians have the right to know more about the regime at the Nauru and Manus (Papua New Guinea) centres. The centres cost Australian taxpayers $A1.2b ($NZ1.28b) a year.
The files set out assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm attempts, child abuse and living conditions endured by asylum seekers held by the Australian government.
The Guardian’s analysis reveals more than half the 2116 reports – 1086 incidents, or 51.3% – involve children, although children made up only about 18% of those in detention on Nauru during the time covered by the reports, May 2013 to October 2015.
The findings come just weeks after the exposure of brutal treatment of young people in juvenile detention in the Northern Territory, leading to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announcing a wide-ranging public inquiry.
The Nauru reports range from a guard allegedly grabbing a boy and threatening to kill him once he is living in the community to guards allegedly slapping children in the face.
In September 2014 a teacher reported that a girl had requested a four-minute shower instead of a two-minute shower. “Her request has been accepted on condition of sexual favours. It is a male security person. She did not state if this has or hasn’t occurred. The security officer wants to view a boy or girl having a shower.”
According to another report in the same month, a traumatised girl had sewn her lips together. A guard saw her and began laughing at her.
In July that year a child under the age of 10 undressed and invited a group of adults to insert their fingers into her vagina. In February 2015 a young girl gestured to her vagina and said a male asylum seeker “cut her from under”.
There are seven reports of sexual assault of children, 59 reports of assault on children, 30 of self-harm involving children and 159 of threatened self-harm involving children.
One pregnant woman, after being told she would need to give birth on Nauru in October 2015, was agitated and in tears. “I give my baby to Australia to look after,” she pleaded with a caseworker. “I don’t want to have my baby in PNG, the [Nauru hospital] or have it in this dirty environment.”
The files raise stark questions about how information is reported on Nauru, one of Australia’s two offshore detention centres for asylum seekers who arrive by boat. They highlight serious concerns about the ongoing risks to children and adults held on the island.
They show how the Australian government has failed to respond to warning signs. They reveal sexual assault allegations – many involving children – that have never been previously disclosed.
The most damning evidence emerges from the words of the staff working in the detention centre themselves – the people who compile the reports. These caseworkers, guards, teachers and medical officers have been charged with caring for hundreds of asylum seekers on the island.
The publication is likely to renew calls for an end to the political impasse that has seen children in Australia’s care languish on Nauru for more than three years.
Nauru, the world’s smallest island state, is home to fewer than 10,000 people. Australia supplies aid and buys services from Nauru’s government and companies, leading to accusations Nauru is effectively a “client state”.
On the last official count at the end of June, 442 people – 338 men, 55 women and 49 children – were held in the Nauru regional processing centre. The other offshore centre, on Manus Island, was holding 854 men.
Australia’s policy has been regularly criticised by the UN.
The documents cover the period examined in a review into allegations of sexual assault, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into children in detention and a Senate inquiry. They cover the final days of Labor’s time in government and the conservative coalition’s time in office since September 2013.