More Abuse Uncovered on Nauru, So Who’s Responsible?

17 August 2016


Opinion: It is time Australia rejected the fiction that our political leaders are not somehow responsible for what happens on the offshore detention centres they have created, writes Julie Edwards the CEO of Jesuit Social Services.

Only weeks ago we saw the horrific revelations of the treatment of young people in Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin. Outrage ensued and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called for a royal commission. Despite the terms and conditions of this commission causing some controversy, it was an important first step in addressing the injustice faced by those young people.

Now, as a nation, we are faced with another shocking exposé of abuse, sexual assault and self-harm, in the Nauru Files leaked by the Guardian Australia.

We expect that the only just and moral response from our prime minister, is to call a royal commission into the shocking reports that have been uncovered. Guards laughing at a woman with her lips sewed and slapping children in the face, bus drivers taking photos of female detainees to masturbate to. Latest statistics show there are 466 people residing on Nauru, and another 847 on Manus Island.

In response to the Nauru files, the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection said in a statement: “The Australian Government continues to support the Nauruan government to provide for the health, welfare and safety of all transferees and refugees in Nauru.”

It is time we reject the fiction that our political leaders are not somehow responsible for what happens on the offshore detention centres they have created. This notion contradicts the domestic legal reality, the United Nations Refugee Convention and the principles of Jesuit Social Services and other organisations like ours.

There are serious limitations to transparency and accountability concerning the regional processing centres (RPCs), which undermine the rights of those detained. That is why, we have joined the call for a royal commission into human rights abuses on Nauru.

By removing people seeking asylum from Australia’s territorial jurisdiction, the government has shirked its humanitarian obligations under international and domestic law. This tactic is used to deny any control over people who would otherwise be considered under their care.

Since 2012, there has been a virtual media blackout at Nauru and Manus Island, contributing to an environment of secrecy established by the private firms contracted to manage operations. By hiring corporations like Broadspectrum (formerly Transfield) rather than overseeing the refugee determination process themselves, the government has tried to distance itself from the consequences of its policy.

The competing objectives of security versus welfare is a critical tension in this relationship, and has only become starker. International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), a healthcare provider, was earlier in the year embroiled in a scandal relating to alleged failures to meet medical benchmarks and falsifying data. Additionally, there are allegations of sexual assault by IHMS staff on Nauru.

The government has also passed over the welfare portfolio to Broadspectrum, with a contract worth $1.5 billion between 2012 and 2015. The company has failed to establish a credible human rights record, with a 2015 Senate inquiry highlighting dozens of allegations of human rights breaches (including 30 reports of child abuse). It has also been revealed in the Nauru Files that Wilson Security failed to inform the same Senate inquiry of at least 16 cases of sexual violence and child abuse, and have been downgrading reports of abuse on Nauru.

Offshore detention has been the focus of a series of High Court challenges. In a judgement of a case in February, the court clearly stated that Australia is an active participant in the detainment of people seeking asylum, even if they are outside our borders. Australia maintains effective control over them through funding arrangements, engaging contractors and transporting people to the centres.

The department is likewise bound under domestic law to provide a non-delegable duty of care, and workplace health and safety rules apply to the centres, making them subject to regulation regarding workplace conditions. Lapses in transparency and oversight become moral and ethical problems when accusations of mistreatment, abuse, and substandard conditions continue to grow.

The Moss Review substantiated many allegations and determined that the Nauruan police force and judicial systems are incapable of effectively responding to incidents.

Serious concerns regarding the health, safety and rights of people seeking asylum make it clear that the current system is failing those it is intended to serve. Or as some have pointed out, failing those people is perhaps exactly the point of such a dysfunctional system.

As the daily horrors in offshore detention centres are uncovered, it is time for us to demand that the veil of secrecy be lifted and our elected federal government take responsibility for the lives they are destroying. History will not remember these incidents kindly.

If Malcolm Turnbull is at all concerned with his legacy as prime minister, he will call a royal commission immediately, to uncover the full extent of human rights abuses on Nauru and Manus Island. It seems only then, will there be impetus to do what is needed. #ClosetheCamps. #BringThemHere. #FreetheRefugees.

About the author: Julie Edwards is the CEO of Jesuit Social Services. She joined the organisation in 2001 and was appointed as CEO in 2004. She has over 35 years of experience engaging with marginalised people and families experiencing breakdown and trauma.


Originally published in Pro Bono: