Nauru’s migrant dead end

“I went out to go shopping, when two men forced me into a car. They raped me,” recounted Yasmine*.

Since she was raped in March this year, Yasmine has not left her small room located in a refugee settlement. She has been terrified to cross paths with the two perpetrators who threatened to kill her if she told anyone about the rape. Stuck in Nauru, there is no safe escape from her attackers.

Nauru is a small island nation in the central Pacific Ocean, more than 4000 kilometres off the coast of Australia. In July 2013, the Australian Government announced that it would no longer open its borders to migrants arriving by boat. Instead, they would be transferred to Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. Similar arrangements were made with Nauru where offshore processing offers migrants no hope for resettlement in Australia.

According to the Australian Border Force, 991 adults and 174 children migrants, including refugees, live now on Nauru. The majority have already spent three years in limbo on the island: those who were recognized as refugees were promised to be resettled in a third country, as the government of Australia confirmed they “will never be resettled” in the country they intended to go to.

However, it is still unclear for the refugees what will happen next. Most migrants live in the community, in settlements around the island, but some remain at the Regional Processing Centre, an open camp where asylum seekers are free to come and go around the island.

It was during one of their missions to assess the human rights situation of migrants in Nauru that a team from the UN Human Rights Office in the Pacific, based in Suva, Fiji, interviewed 50 migrants including refugees like Yasmine.

They all shared common circumstances: they were forced to flee their home countries because they were persecuted or faced other hardship. They began their journey hoping to go to Australia but instead were sent to Nauru. Around 80% of them have been recognized as refugees but they remain on an island where they feel unsafe and which does not offer them the life, the protection and the opportunities they were seeking.

Two days before the arrival of the UN Human Rights team on 12 August, 1,000 incident reports from Nauru landed on the editorial desk of an Australian newspaper. Serious allegations of violence, sexual assault, and degrading treatment that reportedly took place between 2013 and 2015 were made against workers at the Regional Processing Centre. The team endeavoured to find out how these allegations were investigated and if any had led to prosecutions and convictions.

Freedom of movement outside the camp has brought its setbacks: migrants have reported many incidents of physical assault, intimidation and theft, in their houses, on the streets and even in schools. Many other incidents of rape have also been reported. Migrants have stopped reporting these to police because of lack of accountability for perpetrators and fear of retaliation.

“Many feel unsafe in Nauru and some refuse to leave their accommodation, staying inside all day,” said Chitra Massey, Regional Representative of the OHCHR Pacific Office. “We were unable to find much evidence that allegations made by refugees are properly investigated by the Nauru Police Force. None of them have reached the trial stage. This raises serious concerns about impunity."

The uncertainty about their future has deeply affected the mental health of many adults and children migrants, including refugees: despair and anxiety have led to an alarming number of self-harm and suicide attempts.

In May 2016, the mother of a 6 year-old boy locked herself in the family’s accommodation and set it on fire. She had attempted suicide several times before and has been a patient at the medical clinic of the Regional Processing Centre for the past four months. A former art teacher in Iran - she is now mentally broken and stays in bed all day, on suicide watch by security officers guarding around the clock. Her son is scared of her and refuses to visit.

Massey pointed out that parents are also concerned for their children’s safety. A significant number of children are no longer going to school because they have faced bullying, intimidation, and even sexual harassment.

“Further, the quality of education provided is very poor. The lack of access to schooling violates the right to education and also has a significant impact on the mental health of these children,” she said. “The situation of these migrants, including refugees, is calling for urgent, durable solutions.”

*not her real name.

30 September 2016

See also