UN high commissioner for refugees ‘gravely concerned’ by allegations raised and says all refugees and asylum seekers should be moved off Nauru
Two United Nations agencies and dozens of human rights, legal, religious and medical groups have demanded the Australian government put a stop to the suffering of asylum seekers and refugees in its offshore processing regime, following the publication of the Nauru files.
The Australian government faced widespread condemnation after the Guardianrevealed thousands of leaked documents from inside its detention centre on the Pacific island of Nauru, covering a period of more than two years.
The documents, part of the largest ever leak from inside the Australian-run regime, included incident reports detailing countless instances and allegations of abuse and trauma, often perpetrated by or involving detention centre staff.
The UN high commissioner for refugees said it was “gravely concerned” by the allegations raised and said all refugees and asylum seekers should be moved offNauru “to humane conditions”.
“The documents released are broadly consistent with UNHCR’s longstanding and continuing concerns regarding mental health, as well as overall conditions for refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru,” it said.
“UNHCR has observed and reported a progressive deterioration of the situation of refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru through its regular visits since 2012.”
Officials from the UNHCR were present – though they had not spoken to him – when a 23-year-old Iranian refugee, Omid Masoumali, doused himself in petrol and set himself alight on Nauru in May this year in protest at conditions on the island.
After delays in flying him from Nauru for medical attention, Masoumali died in a Brisbane hospital two days later.
In the wake of the publication of the Nauru files, the UNHCR said permanent and humane solutions for Nauru’s asylum seeker and refugee populations were needed urgently. “Delays in immediate action to rectify the current situation are exacerbating human suffering and causing ongoing deterioration.”
A group of 26 former Save the Children staff released a statement on Wednesday afternoon to say they were the authors of many of the reports but the leaked cache was just “the tip of the iceberg”.
On Wednesday the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection said many of the incident reports “reflect unconfirmed allegations or uncorroborated statements and claims – they are not statements of proven fact”.
“The documents published today are evidence of the rigorous reporting procedures that are in place in the regional processing centre – procedures under which any alleged incident must be recorded, reported and where necessary investigated,” it said.
The department said it was examining the matters raised to ensure the reporting process by the centre’s service providers was appropriate, but there was no evidence to suggest under- or misreporting.
“The Australian government provides support to the Nauruan government, including the deployment of Australian federal police officers to work alongside the [Nauruan police force] and build their capacity to investigate complex and sensitive incidents.
Amnesty International’s senior director for research Anna Neistat, who went undercover last month to investigate the centre, said the Guardian’s report “laid bare a system of ‘routine dysfunction and cruelty’ that is at once dizzying in its scale and utterly damning for the Australian authorities who tried so hard to maintain a veil of secrecy”.
“The Australian government has engaged in one of the most successful mass cover-ups I’ve witnessed in my career of documenting human rights violations,” said Neistat. “They’ve repeatedly said this kind of abuse has not been going on. They’ve been lying.”
The Australian Medical Association called for the establishment of an investigative body, entirely independent of government, to immediately assess the health and living conditions of every person in offshore detention.
“These disturbing reports echo long-held concerns by the AMA about the lack of proper physical and mental health care being provided to people in immigration detention,” said the peak body’s president, Dr Michael Gannon.
The Australian Lawyers Alliance called for Comcare, the federal workplace regulator, to investigate and prosecute for the abuses under the Work Health and Safety Act, which a spokesman, Greg Barnes, said applied to anyone in a workplace, not just employees.
A number of people and organisations, including activist group GetUp and the Australian churches refugee taskforce, called for the establishment of a royal commission, the country’s most powerful form of inquiry.
Some drew comparisons with the Four Corners television report last month that broadcast brutal treatment of young people in juvenile detention in the Northern Territory, noting that the former sparked an immediate inquiry. The response from the federal government on Wednesday was muted.
Hugh de Kretser, the executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre, told Guardian Australia: “Nothing excuses the failure to act. There is a real hypocrisy in the fact we have two royal commissions currently afoot – one into institutional child sexual abuse and another into youth detention centres – and yet at the very same time we’re warehousing children on Nauru in conditions that allow this kind of abuse to thrive.”
The Australian Council for International Development and the Australian Council of Social Service said the current royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse should immediately examine incidents and allegations raised in the Nauru files.
“In the face of the extraordinary evidence of such abuse and harassment of children in immigration detention in Nauru there must be an investigation into whether this is an explicit breach of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s duty of care,” said the former’s chief executive, Marc Purcell.
Unicef said the Nauru files were further evidence that the island nation was not a suitable place to resettle refugee children, and called on the Australian government to find a permanent resettlement solution for families.
“The Australian government must take immediate action for children and their families to prevent further harm,” Nicole Breeze, director of policy and advocacy at Unicef Australia, said, adding that Australia should also do more to assist with resettling refugees from across the region and around the world.
Other advocacy groups called for the immediate transfer of the 48 children believed to still be living on Nauru.
The End Child Detention Coalition called for the government to legislate time limits to getting juveniles out of detention and into community situations. “Even short periods of detention are incredibly harmful for children, with extremely high rates of depression and unaddressed trauma exacerbated by detention,” said the chair of the group, Leeanne Torpey.
The Australian human rights commissioner, Gillian Triggs, responded to the report by urging the Australian public to “speak out and talk up”.
“We really need the public’s attention to ensure that our politicians change the policy,” she said.
The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull said the incident reports would be “carefully examined to see if there are any complaints … or issues … that were not properly addressed.” He said the Australian government supported Nauru in ensuring the welfare of people in detention.
The treasurer, Scott Morrison – a former immigration minister – told reporters incident reports “are reports of allegations, they are not findings of fact in relation to an incident”.
The Labor leader, Bill Shorten, urged the government to improve oversight in the detention centres, and appoint a children’s commissioner to protect the welfare of children in immigration detention.
“Just because people are indirectly in the care of Australia doesn’t absolve Australia of ensuring that people are safe,” Shorten told reporters. “And so these files, I think, again point to the immediate need for an independent children’s advocate.”
The Greens party called for a royal commission into conditions in detention as a matter of urgency. Greens immigration spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson-Young, said the government could not claim ignorance of “institutionalised child abuse, taxpayer-funded sexual assault” of women in Nauru.
“This is not new information to [current immigration minister] Peter Dutton. It’s not new information for Scott Morrison, and I don’t believe it’s new information for Malcolm Turnbull,” she said. “The sad truth is the government knowingly turned a blind eye [to] collateral damage for their stop-the-boats policy.”