In April 2015, a group of professionals formerly employed at the detention facility operated by Australia in Nauru sent an open letter to the Australian public noting that the federal government has been aware of the sexual and physical assault of women and children for at least 17 months and had failed to take steps to protect the victims from harm. One of the letter’s signatories is psychiatrist Dr Peter Young, the former medical director of mental health service in the immigration detention system. Dr Young has described the system as marked by non-transparency, intolerance of those who speak up about abuse and a ‘cult of secrecy’.
This secrecy and lack of transparency received significant legislative backing in July 2015, when the functions of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service were absorbed by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and a new operational and enforcement arm of the expanded department created, known as the Australian Border Force. The Australian Border Force Act 2015 (Cth) has the effect of further entrenching secrecy around Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, with limitations on disclosure of information backed by criminal sanctions. Workers and contractors commit an offence punishable by two years’ imprisonment if they record or disclose information obtained in the course of their work. While disclosure is permissible where it is based on a reasonable belief that it is necessary ‘to prevent or lessen a serious threat to the life or health of an individual’, the provision places workers in the invidious position of risking prosecution for disclosing information which they would ordinarily be legally obliged to disclose.
Medical professionals across Australia have protested against the legislation and many have vowed to continue making disclosures about abuse notwithstanding the risk of prosecution. Whether prosecution will follow such disclosures remains to be seen. What is not in doubt is that significant abuses are occurring. The treatment of asylum seekers detained in Nauru is the subject of an independent review by Philip Moss which was released in March this year. A Senate Committee has just concluded an enquiry which builds upon the Moss review and investigates the management and operation of the Nauru facility. Its report was released on 31 August 2015.
During the Senate’s public hearings, representatives of Transfield, the private contractor receiving $1.2 billion to manage the facility over 20 months, demonstrated a remarkable inability to answer questions. Questions on a range of issues, from the company’s knowledge of specific abuse allegations to questions of the staff gender ratio, were taken on notice. Other witnesses revealed a problem of intoxication and drug use among staff and the appalling abuse of detainees, including sexual abuse and exploitation, rape and bartering of sexual favours for access to amenities. The detention facility emerged as a particularly dangerous place for children, with acts of self-harm and highly sexualised behaviour observed in children as young as six. The committee expressed deep concerns about the level of accountability and transparency in the running of the centre and concluded that conditions were not adequate, appropriate or safe. It recommended that reasonable access to the facility be provided to the media and the Australian Human Rights Commission and that a full audit be undertaken of all allegations of sexual abuse, child abuse and other criminal conduct. The committee called on the government to remove all children and their families from the facility as soon as possible and provide them with appropriate arrangements in the community. Whether the government will act on the committee’s recommendations or turn on the messenger remains to be seen.
TANIA PENOVIC teaches law at Monash University.