Amnesty International has condemned Australia's offshore detention regime on Nauru as an "open-air prison" and akin to "torture", where refugees and and asylum seekers are attacked with impunity, healthcare is inadequate or non-existent, and suicide attempts, including among children, are common.
Amnesty researchers visited the island in July and its new report of conditions has catalogued a series of interviews with 58 asylum seekers and refugees, Nauruan locals and Australian staff who work in the processing centre.
"The Australian government had been very clear, including in public statements, about the purpose of this system, to deter people from seeking asylum in Australia, " said Amnesty International's senior director for research, Dr Anna Neistat. "What we see in Nauru essentially amounts to torture – a system set up to cause deliberate harm to people."
Neistat’s visit to Nauru found:
– A seven-month pregnant Iranian refugee attempted to hang herself, telling her husband, "I'm homeless, I can't bring another person into this world". The woman was rescued and the baby was born but the woman has made several more attempts to kill herself and does not breastfeed or engage with the baby.
– Suicide attempts by children were commonplace, including by a 13-year-old boy who had attempted to kill himself multiple times – with a knife, with petrol and by drowning himself in the ocean – and a 15-year-old girl who had tried to kill herself twice, saying "I'm tired of my life".
– A refugee family who moved into the Nauruan community were repeatedly attacked in their home and their property destroyed. The mother in the family has attempted suicide 10 times and her son refuses to leave the house.
– Guards in the processing centre have assaulted, abused and threatened refugee children, including one guard who threw rocks at children, hitting one in the head.
– A young girl was prescribed adult anti-depressive medication that has a "black box warning" against its use by children, because it causes suicidal thinking. "The pills were making her crazy," the girl's parents said. The same child was sexually assaulted by another refugee in the community. Despite police being notified and the offender known, there has been no investigation or prosecution.
– Staff on the island reporting that people are discharged from hospital even when they are "still sick, sometimes half-conscious; once a patient still had needles in the hands. We are not allowed to ask the hospital why they are being discharged, or what medication they've been prescribed, or for their medical records."
Neistat said she found consistent evidence of deteriorating mental health of asylum seekers and refugees, discrimination and violent attacks, sexual violence, inadequate medical care and harassment.
“On Nauru, the Australian government runs an open-air prison designed to inflict as much suffering as necessary to stop some of the world’s most vulnerable people from trying to find safety,” she said.
“What we are seeing is the Australian government going to extraordinary lengths to hide the daily despair of the people on Nauru. In doing so, they have misled the Australian public and the world by failing to admit that their border control policy depends on the deliberate and systematic abuse of thousands of people. Abuse is never a solution.”
On the weekend, the government confirmed that 19 cases of violent and sexual assault of asylum seekers and refugees – including eight against children – have been referred to Nauru police.
But there have been no prosecutions for offences against asylum seekers or refugees in three years of offshore processing.
The Amnesty report follows the publication by the Guardian in August of the Nauru files – more than 2,000 incident reports written by workers on the island alleging instances of violent assault, sexual abuse, self-harm and suicide attempts, and failures in healthcare. The incident reports detailed the totality of life on Nauru – they include also other, more minor incidents including complaints about food quality, the cleanliness of toilets and other living conditions.
The Australian government has maintained a resolute line on its asylum policies, arguing that offshore processing is a necessary deterrent to asylum seeker boats trying to reach Australia and crucial to “saving lives at sea”.
The number of boats reaching Australia has decreased dramatically – the last boat to reach Australian territory was in May – however asylum seeker boats, carrying tens of thousands of asylum seekers, continue to be piloted across southeast Asia.
"We do have a tough border protection policy," the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said previously. " You could say it's a harsh policy, but it has worked."
Turnbull has said he was “concerned” about reports of abuses in offshore detention but said the policy remained necessary in order to deter future irregular migration by sea.
Offshore processing has been consistently condemned as deliberately punitive, cruel, arbitrary and unlawful by several arms of the UN, dozens of other national governments, the Australian Human Rights Commission and rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Neistat said Nauru was effectively a client state of Australia and that Australia had full responsibility for the operation of the processing centre on the island.
“I don’t think there is any question that the system is put in place by the Australian government, is fully paid for by the Australian government, that everybody who works on the island with refugees and asylum seekers . . . is under contract with the Australian government and that everything is being reported to the Australian government.”
The Amnesty report cites the "Nauru settlement incident reporting protocol" that demands that all major and critical incidents be reported to the Australian Border Force in Canberra by phone and that all reportable incidents must be sent to 31 email addresses, no fewer than 19 of which are @border.gov.au addresses.
Neistat said the government’s rationale of “saving lives at sea” was flawed: “People are still drowning, it only means people don’t drown near Australia’s shores and people do die in Nauru. You cannot really claim you are saving lives when you are subjecting people to levels of harm that they are killing themselves.”
The Amnesty report calls for the immediate end of offshore processing on Nauru and on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
In its place, Amnesty recommended Australia could: increase foreign aid to neighbouring countries to better protect refugees; work within existing regional mechanisms such as the Bali process to improve refugees rights protection across the region; grant refugees access to Australia's existing non-humanitarian migration programs; expand private sponsorship and family reunion visa options for refugees; and drop obstruction of resettlement offers from third countries such as New Zealand.
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection responded to the Amnesty report, stating that the claims in the report had been refuted by the department and service providers, on numerous occasions.
The department said Amnesty did not approach it for comment regarding its report.
"The department takes the health and safety of refugees and transferees in Nauru very seriously and welcomes independent scrutiny of Australia's support of regional processing arrangements," it said. "Independent oversight is provided by a range of organisations, including the United Nations Human Rights Commission, international committee of the Red Cross and the commonwealth ombudsman – all of which have visited Nauru. In many cases the report references unsubstantiated claims made by individuals or advocacy groups as fact in the absence of evidence."
ABC TV’s Four Corners on Monday focused on the mental health impacts on children of offshore processing on Nauru. Speaking with children from Nauru as well as former teachers on the island, the program reported a precipitous decline in mental health amongst children, massive rates of depression, and repeated suicide attempts.
One teacher recounted trying to convince a nine- or 10-year-old girl not to jump from the school balcony.
“I had one little girl which I’ll never forget, who I think had just had enough and there was a chair right on the balcony. And she stood on the balcony, and I came over and I said, ‘what are you doing?’
“And she said, ‘If I jump right now, it wouldn’t matter . . . who cares?’ And so for 10 minutes I spoke to her about how much I would care if she did and how much her father would care if she did jump. So for that time I held my hand over in front of her, over the side of the balcony and what was going through my head, ‘if she jumps can I grab the back of her? Will I be able to grab her in time?’
“I’ll never forget that moment. For about 10 minutes I’m trying to talk this beautiful (girl) – she was only nine, 10 at the time – to not to jump off the balcony of the school. I mean that’s how traumatised these children are.”
Major-General Andrew Bottrell, the operational commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, told Senate estimates on Monday the risk of irregular boat arrivals remained real. "People smugglers continue to try to convince uninformed and vulnerable people to get on boats."