Nauru: Australia’s Shame


Annemarie Lewis

Allegations of self-harm and sexual abuse incident reports being downgraded, a guard grabbing a boy by the throat and banging his head against the ground, and a seemingly dispassionate Minister for Immigration all splashed across the Australian and international news scenes. The Nauru Files were released August 2016, exclusively, by The Guardian Australia in what is the “largest cache of documents to be leaked from within Australia’s asylum seeker detention regime.”

The offshore processing of refugees started in 2001 when the government, under Prime Minister John Howard, introduced the Pacific Solution, where boats carrying asylum seekers were intercepted and taken to third countries for processing and settlement.

In July 2013, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that Australia had entered into a Regional Resettlement Arrangement with Papa New Guinea (PNG). A similar agreement was entered into with Nauru in August 2013, under the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). These arrangements stated that all asylum seekers that arrived by boat were to be transferred to PNG or Nauru for processing.

In May 2015, a new law was established, the Australian Border Force Act, which is used to deter those who wish to publicly voice their concern or condemnations about the appalling treatment of asylum seekers or providing information about the conditions to the community. This also allows the Australian government to act without transparency.


Australian Border Force Act 2015

Section 24: 

(1) The Australian Border Force Commissioner may request the following persons to make and subscribe an oath or affirmation in accordance with the form prescribed by the rules for the purposes of this subsection: 

(a) a person who is covered by paragraph (a) of the definition of Immigration and Border Protection worker in
subsection 4(1) and who is in the Australian Border Force;
(b) a person who is covered by paragraph (b), (c) or (d) of that definition and whose services are made available to, or who is performing services for, the Australian Border Force 

Section 42:

(1) A person commits an offence if:
(a) the person is, or has been, an entrusted person; and
(b) the person makes a record of, or discloses, information; and (c) the information is protected information. 

Penalty: Imprisonment for 2 years. 


In April 2016, the PNG Supreme Court ruled that the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island was illegal. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton stated that the asylum seekers were to be relocated but, not to Australia.

In August 2016, The Guardian released the Nauru files. The files depict a very different picture from the Nauru described by the government, whereby Dutton stated he had “instructed the department to do whatever they possibly can, both domestically within the detention network here and with our partners in the regional processing centres, to make sure that the standard of care is as high as it possibly can be.”

The files detail assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm attempts, child abuse, and living conditions endured by asylum seekers at Nauru. In a letter from ‘Save the Children’ in May 2016, the government was informed that through “the evidence gathered through data analysis, staff observations and other credible sources, the enclosed report on ‘Child Asylum Seekers in Nauru’ identifies significant and numerous child rights violations in this context.”

Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has found consistencies with these reports and persistently brought them to the attention of the governments of Nauru and of Australia, but stated that it is not clear to what extent the alleged incidents were properly investigated.

Dutton, in response to the Nauru files, stated the following: “I won’t tolerate any sexual abuse whatsoever. But I have been made aware of some incidents that have been reported, false allegations of sexual assault, because in the end people have paid money to people smugglers and they want to come to our country. Some people have even gone to the extent of self-harming and people have self-immolated in an effort to get to Australia, and certainly some have made false allegations in an attempt to get to Australia.” Research Fellow at La Trobe University, Dr. Bianca Fileborn, points out that the dismissal of these claims as lies leaves asylum seekers vulnerable as their cases are cast in doubt and that “Dutton’s comments do a further disservice to all victims of sexual assault in propagating the age old myth that they frequently lie.”

Asylum seekers have sought the protection of Australia in a desperate bid for safety from their war-torn countries. It is baffling that a developed country, like Australia, has so little sympathy for those in need of assistance. We have dehumanized the asylum seeker. Instead, they are measured, they are a statistic, and they have no name.

Ignorance cannot be claimed. The media have reported various incidents, such as Abyan being refused an abortion, a six year old being assaulted, the debacle of baby Asha and her medical team’s refusal to release her for fear of her being sent back to Nauru, and the horrific images of a Iranian man and a Somali woman setting themselves on fire within a week of each other. In August 2015, the Senate Inquiry into Nauru Detention Centre Releases Final Report which stated “the present conditions and circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre on Nauru are not adequate, appropriate or safe for the asylum seekers detained there. The committee believes that the Commonwealth must accept ultimate responsibility for conditions at the Centre, commit to a clear plan for its future as part of genuine regional arrangements for dealing with irregular migration, and make tangible improvements to living conditions.”

Australia needs to stand up and claim responsibility for the atrocities happening less than 5,000 km from their shores. The government needs to provide transparency for their actions. There needs to be an acceptance that these are humans, who are in need of protection as it is their basic right. Australia can and should provide this protection. The national anthem proclaims “For those who’ve come across the seas. We’ve boundless plains to share,” and so it’s time to practice what is preached.

Australian Border Force Act 2015: //parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/legislation/bills/r5408_aspassed/toc_pdf/15016b01.pdf;fileType=application%2Fpdf

Australian Government Information Page on Offshore Processing:

//www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1516/Quick_Guides/Offshore

Dr. Bianca Fileborn’s Article:

https://theconversation.com/the-nauru-files-why-dont-we-believe-victims-of-sexual-abuse-63946

The Nauru Files:

//www.theguardian.com/australia-news/ng-interactive/2016/aug/10/the-nauru-files-the-lives-of-asylum-seekers-in-detention-detailed-in-a-unique-database-interactive

Timeline of Events at Nauru:

Timeline of Events