Refugee women on Nauru: The gendered effects of Australia's asylum seeker detention policies
Perhaps nobody is more deplorably served by Australian policy than asylum seekers. In today's post, Azadeh Dastyari ( @azdastyari ) of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University, explains how women held in detention in Nauru face very specific and extreme physical and psychological harm due to their gender. This blog first appeared on Themis Says: The Blog of the Feminist Legal Studies Group at Monash ( @feminist_law ). NOTE: This blog post contains references to sexual and physical assault that may be distressing to some readers.
s99, a name given by the Federal Court to a young African refugee, was unconscious and suffering an epileptic seizure when she was raped. She had been transferred to Nauru by the Australian government after fleeing persecution in her home country. As with all refugees in Nauru she had been held in a detention centre paid for by the Australian government, and had subsequently been ‘released’ into the Nauruan community. It was then that she was raped, as a result of which she became pregnant.
There was strong medical evidence that s99 needed an abortion a fact that the Australian government accepted. However, abortion is not an option on Nauru because it is both unsafe and illegal there. s99 had been a victim of female genital mutilation, this combined with her epilepsy and poor mental health, meant that she required specialised treatment that could be provided to her in Australia. Yet the Australian government, reluctant to bring her to Australia, transferred her to PNG where abortion was both illegal and unsafe. The Federal court ultimately decided that the Minister for Immigration had a duty of care to s99 to provide her with a safe and lawful abortion and ordered her transfer to Australia.
Tragically, s99’s story of physical and sexual abuse and lack of medical assistance is not an anomaly on the tiny island of Nauru which has been caught up in Australia’s border protection policies.
Only 48 women remain detained in the immigration detention facility in Nauru. Hundreds of women, however, including both single women and women with family groups live in the Nauruan community- their presence made possible by funding from the Australian government. These women have been found to be refugees and have been ‘resettled’ on the island. They are not permitted to leave the island except to return to their home countries, which as refugees, is not a viable option.
Policy of Deterrence at Work
These women are the victims of Australia’s policy of deterrence. Australia has attempted to stop refugees and asylum seekers from coming to our shores by ‘deterring’ them from seeking to enter our territory. As Greg Lake, one of the architects of Australia’s offshore processing regime has admitted, the policy of ‘deterrence’ is little more than ‘making conditions for those people worse than if they’d never come to Australia… In practice, that meant constructing an environment of hopelessness.’ That is, the suffering of refugees is not an accidental by‑product of Australia’s approach to those who seek its protection but a systematic and methodical tactic.
The evidence of the suffering of asylum seekers and refugees under Australia’s policies is irrefutable. Human Rights Watch reports that:
refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru routinely face neglect by health workers and other service providers who have been hired by the Australian government, as well as frequent unpunished assaults by local Nauruans. They also endure unnecessary delays and at times denial of medical care, even for life-threatening conditions. Many have dire mental health problems and suffer overwhelming despair – self-harm and suicide attempts are frequent. All refugees and asylum seekers face prolonged uncertainty about their future.
Shockingly every single refugee or asylum seeker interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported ‘intimidation, harassment, or violence directed at them or family members’ on Nauru. It is not difficult to see why Roger Cohen of the New York Times has stated that Australia’s offshore processing regime ‘follows textbook rules for the administering of cruelty.’
In the words of Mina Taherkhani,, a 36 year old refugee trapped on Nauru: ‘The Australian government utilises all of their tools to make us soulless and numb. They have normalised our deprivation, fatality and death.’
The Vulnerable Position of Women and Girls on Nauru
The abuse, self-harm and neglect of asylum seekers in Nauru violates the human rights of all refugees and asylum seekers. However, women and girls are vulnerable to suffering some of the most pronounced negative impacts of Australia’s policy of transferring refugees to offshore centres for detention, processing and even resettlement.
Women and girls are highly vulnerable to gendered forms of violence on Nauru such as groping, touching, explicit threats, and rape. Lack of secure housing is a significant issue for women in Nauru. Women also do not feel safe leaving their accommodation alone. There is strong evidence that the Nauran police have failed to protect women from sexual and physical abuse or to investigate allegations from victims of rape.
In addition, women are more likely to suffer adverse health problems as a result of ‘catastrophic’ health facilities. Pregnant women, in particular, face greater risks to their well-being because of poor conditions.
The Nauru files, leaked incident reports written by staff in Australia’s detention centre on Nauru between 2013 and 2015 revealed hundreds of allegations, including 28 of sexual harassment, assault or abuse and 23 of assault or battery. They also documented how women held in Nauru attempted or threatened suicide 70 times, and committed or attempted self-harm 144 times.
A report commissioned by the Australian government, by Mr Phillip Moss AM also found it was likely that guards working at the detention centre at Nauru had sexually exploited refugees and asylum seekers in exchange for access to shower facilities; that women had been raped; and that adults and children had been physically and sexually assaulted.
The impact of detention on children can also have a devastating effect on refugees and asylum seekers including mothers. As UNHCR explains:
the absence of family or community support and the challenging physical
environment place young children (zero to five years) at significant risk of
compromised development from emotional, cognitive and physical
perspectives. In this context, the intolerable situation for asylum-seekers
and refugees, as well as the breakdown of normal family structures and
intra-familial relationships may place women and children at heightened
risk. Living in these conditions, as well as a physically hostile environment
in poorly ventilated tents, is especially traumatizing to children, in the
context of mandatory and open-ended detention that will exacerbate or
precipitate mental and physical illness into the future for them.
Fighting the Policy
Australia’s policy of ‘deterrence’ which includes the transfer of women asylum seekers and refugees to Nauru would not continue if it did not enjoy the support of many Australian people or if the Australian government did not think they could get away with human rights abuses. This gives us, Australians, more power than we are sometimes led to believe or are willing to admit.
It is important to listen to the voices of refugees and asylum seekers themselves in any attempt to join in their struggle for human rights and dignity. As Mina Taherkhani, further explains, ‘If Australia would like to support [women on Nauru], please make an opportunity for us to talk to the community.’
Hearing the voices of refugees and asylum seekers is difficult, however, because of a concerted effort by the Australian government to keep refugees far from the reach of the media, scholars and civil society. Nevertheless, we must try to ensure those deliberately silenced have a voice and one way of doing this is to follow refugees and asylum seekers in our offshore centres on social media.
The policy of offshore processing resumed in 2012 and has continued for almost 5 years. For this reason much of the Australian media and many Australians no longer see the suffering of those in our offshore camps worthy of attention. However, for the men, women and children suffering through our regime the pain is no less real today than it was when they were first transferred to Australia’s detention islands. For this reason, our constant attention and our defiance will ensure that the refugees and asylum seekers sent to our offshore centres are not forgotten.
As outlined in another blog, we also need to talk to our friends, our family and our communities about what is going on. We must be public in our concern. We need to use social media and all avenues available to us to draw attention to the plight of asylum seekers and refugees caught in Australia’s border protection policies.
It has been reported that the United States begun resettling a small group of refugees from Nauru and Manus Island last week. It should be noted that this resettlement deal is not the answer to ending the current crisis on Manus Island or Nauru. The deal is uncertain with no guarantees as to who will be resettled and when they will be resettled. The US has never claimed to be willing to take all refugees and asylum seekers transferred by Australia to its offshore centres. Whilst there is hope that some refugees will be able to begin a new life in the United States, the only way of ensuring that Australia abides by its international obligations and stops the cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of asylum seekers and refugees for whom it has responsibility, is to close the centres on Nauru and Manus and resettle all refugees in Australia.
This is not impossible to achieve. Successful campaigns such as the #letthemstay campaign shows what is possible and that there is hope. The #letthemstay campaign was built to stop the Australian government from sending back to Nauru a group of vulnerable women and babies who had been transferred to Australia for medical attention. It led to many families being permitted to remain in Australia. The campaign involved numerous rallies in support of refugees and asylum seekers around the country, the willingness of churches to engage in civil disobedience, and doctors refusing to release vulnerable women and children from hospital for fear of their transfer to Nauru. A recent attempt to cut income support and government housing for this same group of refugees and asylum seekers was met with further political action and resulted in more than 100 people receiving direct support from the Victorian government.
The success of the #letthemstay campaign has not been enough because the Australian government is now attempting to circumvent the gains made in the campaign by refusing to give refugees and asylum seekers in desperate need of medical attention access to Australian territory. Despite the Federal Court’s decision in s99, it was recently reported that refugee women transferred to Nauru who were seeking to terminate pregnancies and others in need of medical transfer were being refused medical care in Australia for fear that they would remain in Australia. This is not to say, however, that the #letthemstay campaign did not vastly improve the lives of the women and children at the heart of the struggle. The campaign #letthemstay shows that government policy can be changed but not in a single campaign. The success was only a step in a much broader movement.
What is happening in our offshore centres is not inevitable. It is an expensive and deliberate policy that we can and we must change.