Nauru asylum seeker conditions: Abuse, sexual harassment, filthy tents


DELIBERATE abuse, sexual harassment, suicidal children and cramped, filthy conditions.

This is all happening right under Australia’s nose and taxpayers are letting it happen.

That is the damning finding of a joint human rights investigation into conditions for asylum seekers on the remote Pacific island of Nauru.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International gained access to the island last month with researchers describing the situation as among “the worst they’ve ever seen”.


Immigration Minister Peter Dutton won’t comment on the initial report, but the Immigration Department hit out at Amnesty International over the alleged abuses.


There are about 1200 men, woman and children asylum seekers on Nauru.


Amnesty International senior director for research Anna Neistat, who has visited more than 60 conflict zones, said the abuse was hidden behind a wall of secrecy.

While Australia has come under the spotlight in the past for its treatment of asylum seekers, Ms Neistat said this joint investigation should serve as a wake up call for Australians.


“I think it’s high time for the Australians to start asking themselves whether they are indeed comfortable paying for this system of abuse and injustice,” she told


“Nauru costs Australia hundreds of millions of dollars per year, and I believe Australians can no longer claim that they do not know what this money is spent on. It is largely up to them to oppose their government’s actions.”

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty said asylum seekers were neglected by health workers and other service providers hired by the Australian government.


They also found:


* The treatment of refugees on Nauru is driving women, children and men to breaking point under a wall of secrecy


* New first hand research reveals further evidence of a deliberate and sustained policy of abuse


* People who had sought safety in Australia are being denied medical care, even for life threatening diseases


* Conditions outside of the detention centre are abhorrent, with the physical safety of those held on Nauru a serious concern. Reports of severe beatings, sexual assaults, harassment and robberies are a regular occurrence.


The two advocacy groups interviewed 84 asylum seekers over 12 days as well as service providers who spoke out against conditions on the tiny island which, at 21sq km, is the same size as Melbourne Airport.


Almost all reported severe abuse, inhumane treatment, neglect, frequent assaults and delays in medical care.


Many had attempted to take their own life or contemplated it, including a nine-year-old boy.


The human rights groups claim the Australian government’s failure to address such abuses appears to be a deliberate policy to deter further asylum seekers from arriving in the country by boat.


They said the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a Senate Select Committee and a government-appointed independent expert had all raised concerns about Australia’s harsh policy.


“Australia’s policy of exiling asylum seekers who arrive by boat is cruel in the extreme,” Ms Neistat said.


“Few other countries go to such lengths to deliberately inflict suffering on people seeking safety and freedom. The scale of abuse is shocking. We are not talking about individual cases, there is a clear pattern, a whole system put in place to make an example of these people in order to prevent further boat arrivals to Australia.”


She said attacks by locals happened almost on a daily basis and women cannot go out alone because of verbal and sexual abuses.


Human Rights Watch senior counsel on children’s rights Michael Bochenek, who conducted the investigation, said Australia’s treatment of refugees on Nauru over the past three years appeared deliberate.


“Driving adult and even child refugees to the breaking point with sustained abuse appears to be one of Australia’s aims on Nauru,” he said.


Ms Neistat said Nauru stood out from anything she had seen in the past 15 years, including several war zones.


“Nauru stands out partly because of the incredible level of secrecy that Australia and Nauru managed to maintain around the situation — through refusing entry to any independent observers and by threatening anybody who works on the island into silence,” she said.


She also said the level of secrecy she came up against showed her something wasn’t right.


“I think both the Australian and the Nauruan governments know full well that the system they put in place is abusive and unlawful, and this is exactly why they are trying to hard to hide it from the outside world — and from the Australians whose tax money is being used to maintain this system,” she said.


Amnesty and HRW said both Australia and Nauru went to great lengths to prevent information getting off the island, with service providers threatened for revealing information.


Facebook is banned on the island and only two media outlets have been allowed to visit since 2014. Amnesty was last granted access in 2012.


Ms Neistat said in most cases the levels of health care asylum seekers received was dire.


“Their health gradually deteriorates and in most cases they get nothing but Panadol or sedatives,” she said.


“All of them said that the doctors don’t even take their complaints seriously.”


The hospital lacked even basic supplies such as bandages or sterilised gloves, she said.


Some staff from the International Health and Medical Services, a company hired by the Australian Government to care for the refugees and asylum seekers, also raised concerns about the “appalling treatment” they received, Amnesty and HRW claim.


According to Amnesty and HRW, Australia has been “forcibly transferring families with children, unaccompanied children, and single men and women to Nauru” since September 2012 under Memorandums of Understanding between the two countries.


As part of this agreement, Australia agreed to cover all costs associated with the offshore detention and processing of the asylum seekers and refugees.

But this has come at a huge cost.


The Australian government spent $415 million on its Nauru operations in 2014/15 — about $350,000 for each person held on the island.


Amnesty and HRW also found those transferred to Nauru initially spent a year or sometimes more housed in cramped vinyl tents at the Regional Processing Centre.

They said temperatures inside regularly hit 45-50C while the tents were susceptible to flooding.


Asylum seekers described conditions as “prison-like” with regular searches of tents, two-minute showers and disgusting and inadequate toilet facilities.


The processing centre is run by a private company hired by the Australian Government.


“With humidity between 75 and 90 per cent, mould grows quickly on tent walls and ceilings, and skin rashes and other infections spread rapidly,” their report states.


There were also long lines for toilets that quickly became so dirty that cleaners refused to clean them.


Last year Nauru allowed asylum seekers freedom of movement around the island, but it came at a price.


Many asylum seekers told Amnesty and HRW they had been beaten, robbed at knifepoint, hit with machetes and school-aged children had been subjected to severe bullying.


Women said they were too scared to go out alone and some had experienced sexual harassment and threats of rape.


One woman told the researchers she married a man 15 years older simply to gain some protection on the island.


Most who reported incidents to police claim their complaints were not taken seriously or were told they were only “made for media exposure”.


Researchers also noted high levels of anxiety and mental health issues.


Children had stopped speaking or were wetting the bed and were increasingly withdrawn.


Others revealed they were contemplating suicide.


Nearly all made references to Omid Masoulmali, a 23-year-old Iranian man who died in May after setting himself alight, and to Hodan Yasin, who set herself on fire the following week.


“I have the oil ready,” one man told researchers.


Alarmingly teenagers were also in a high state of mental anguish.


One 15-year-old girl told researchers: “I’m tired of my life”.


Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson said Australians should not be surprised by this report and it was time it was acknowledged the abuse had been happening for months.


Ms Pearson said people being housed in tents and denied adequate medical care was a disgrace while they faced years of uncertainty while claims were processed.


“Some people were told they would wait three years, then five then 10,” she said.


“It’s like a prison sentence that has no end.”


“There are lots of ways to implement this policy that aren’t anywhere near as cruel.”


She said Australia could take New Zealand’s offer to take some asylum seekers or find a middle ground which didn’t involve “opening the doors to waves of refugees”.


Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s office was contacted by, but a spokeswoman said there would be no comments at this stage.


The Immigration and Border Protection Department said there had been no consultation from Amnesty in preparing the report.


“The department therefore has had no opportunity to inform itself of these claims and would strongly encourage Amnesty International contact the department before airing allegations of this kind,” a spokesman said.


Amnesty plans to present a detailed report to the government in the coming weeks.


Despite criticisms surrounding asylum seeker policies in the past, the Australian Government has previously said its border protection policies were working.


The “turn back the boats policy” has been largely successful and popular among voters after hard line Operation Sovereign Borders was introduced by 2013.


Amnesty have launched a petition demanding the government put an end to the abuse on Nauru.