Harrowing reports of brutality, sexual abuse and trauma in Australia’s refugee detention centre on Nauru have made front-page headlines on websites and newspapers around the world – except, it seems, in one place. Australia.
The Guardian yesterday published thousands of documents detailing countless incidents, often against children and by or involving centre staff. It published further reports today.
Two UN agencies and dozens of human rights, legal, religious and medical groups immediately demanded Australia stop the suffering of asylum seekers and refugees in its offshore processing regime.
The UN high commissioner for refugees said it was “gravely concerned” by the allegations and said all refugees and asylum seekers should be moved off Nauru “to humane conditions”.
“UNHCR has observed and reported a progressive deterioration of the situation of refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru through its regular visits since 2012.”
Officials from the UNHCR were present – though they had not spoken to him – when 23-year-old Iranian refugee Omid Masoumali doused himself in petrol and set himself alight on Nauru in May in protest at conditions on the island. After delays in flying him from Nauru for medical attention, Masoumali died in a Brisbane hospital two days later.
Unicef said the files were further evidence Nauru was not a suitable place to resettle refugee children, and called on Australia to find a permanent resettlement solution for families. It added that Australia should also do more to assist with resettling refugees from across the region and around the world.
A group of 26 former Save the Children staff said they were the authors of many of the reports, and the leak was just “the tip of the iceberg”.
Amnesty International’s senior research director, who went undercover last month to investigate the centre, said the report “laid bare a system of ‘routine dysfunction and cruelty’ that is at once dizzying in its scale and utterly damning for the Australian authorities who tried so hard to maintain a veil of secrecy”.
The Australian Medical Association called for an investigative body, independent of government, to immediately assess the health and living conditions of every person in offshore detention.
The Australian Lawyers Alliance called for Comcare, the federal workplace regulator, to investigate and prosecute abuses under the Work Health and Safety Act.
People and organisations, including the Australian churches refugee taskforce, called for the establishment of a royal commission. Some drew comparisons with the TV report last month that revealed the brutal treatment of young people in the Northern Territory’s juvenile detention system, sparking an immediate inquiry.
Other advocacy groups called for the immediate transfer of the 48 children believed still living on Nauru.
The government’s response?
Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said the reports would be “carefully examined to see if there are any complaints … or issues … that were not properly addressed.” He said the government supported Nauru in ensuring the welfare of people in detention.
(Nauru, population 10,300, is effectively a client state of Australia and does not have a functioning justice, police or welfare system. New Zealand has suspended aid until it is satisfied the “rule of law” has been reinstated.)
Treasurer Scott Morrison, a former immigration minister, told reporters incident reports “are reports of allegations, they are not findings of fact in relation to an incident”.
Human rights commissioner Gillian Triggs urged the Australian public to “speak out and talk up. We really need the public’s attention to ensure that our politicians change the policy,” she said.
Judging from the Australian media’s reaction, that’s highly unlikely. The report that made headlines around the world did not figure on any major newspaper’s front page, and was barely mentioned on TV news.