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The Tiny Island In The Pacific Where Refugee Women Go Through Hell

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Photo: Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.
Abyan* was 15 years old when a rocket destroyed her home in Somalia in 2007, killing her family. The teenager fled the country and eventually arrived on Christmas Island off the coast of Australia in October 2013. She was found by authorities and, two days later, she was transported to Nauru – a tiny island in the South Pacific which houses one of Australia’s many offshore immigration detention facilities.

Though it was determined that Abyan was an official refugee – having been forced to leave her country in order to escape persecution – under Australian law she was refused entry to the country. Instead she was moved from the detention centre on Nauru to the "community" space just outside of it, alone, isolated and scared. It was here that, on July 2015, Abyan says was raped and became pregnant.
According to a recent spate of leaked reports from detention staff on Nauru, Abyan was not alone in suffering abuse there. The files, kept on a database by caseworkers on the island, were released and published in the Guardian earlier this month, and detailed widespread abuse and threats against female refugees on the island, many of whom were children.

One instance of misconduct detailed a guard requesting sexual favours in return for allowing a girl to have a longer shower; another involved a young woman being told she was on ‘a list’ compiled by local Nauruan guards of women they were ‘waiting for’; and report noted that bus drivers had taken voyeuristic photos of the women in the camp.

The leak has lead to a public outcry, including protests held outside parliament buildings in Australia earlier this month. The Refugee Council of Australia called the reports “sickening”, while Save the Children staff quoted in the Guardian warned that the files were just the “tip of the iceberg” of the extent of abuse inflicted on refugees on Nauru.

Nauru is the world’s smallest island state, a barren country the same size as Melbourne airport. Home to just 10,000 people, intensive phosphate mining and widespread environmental damage on the island means that 75% of it is uninhabitable and the population is heavily reliant on imports due to the lack of natural resources. Despite the poverty and terrible living conditions, it was chosen as a site for one of Australia’s controversial offshore detention facilities, and in 2001, the centre was opened.

For Abyan, being raped was just the beginning of her ordeal. Abortion is illegal on Nauru and despite her continual pleas, Abyan was forced to wait until the authorities arranged for her to fly to Australia. By this point she had become deeply distressed and her physical health had deteriorated rapidly. On arrival in Australia she asked for some more time to ready herself for the abortion and for an explanation of how exactly it would be carried out. Instead she was secretly flown back to Nauru with Australia’s Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, publicly proclaiming that she had decided not to proceed with the abortion.

Abyan’s story was one of those included in a recent report, published by the Australian Women in Support of Women on Nauru (AWSWN), titled “Protection Denied, Abuse Condoned: Women on Nauru at Risk”. The AWSWN organisation was set up last year, after Julie Macken, an Australian journalist and activist, became aware of what was happening on the island.

“I had covered the refugee and human rights situation whilst working as a features writer during the 90s and early 00s,” she tells Refinery29. “But then I read this article [in The Saturday Paper] last summer and it dawned on me that the situation was more awful than before. It was clear that it was worse than it’s ever been in terms of the hopelessness, the rape, the abuse, the humiliation, the insanity.”
Julie explains that the abuse is two-fold: women are suffering humiliation and harassment from those working in the camp itself, but those who have been released and live in the community are in even more danger. Included in AWSWN’s report is the case of one unnamed woman who, having been moved out of the detention centre, says she was raped while unconscious, having suffered a seizure, and another of a young African woman who has not come out of her room since being raped.

“No one has been prosecuted for these crimes,” explains Julie. “There’s not accountability, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s a hopeless situation.”

As well as the sexual harassment detailed in the recently leaked reports, the Nauru files revealed the extent of suffering for children being held in the detention centres; more than half of the reports (51.3%) involved children, many of whom were clearly extremely traumatised, as are their mothers. Julie comments: “The women who have children are so angry that they can’t protect their kids. I am a mother and I can think of no greater ill than not being able to protect my child. They are just so paralysed by fear and despair.”
The Guardian’s publication of the Nauru files has reignited outrage about Australia’s overly harsh immigration policies, but as of yet, no official enquiry has been launched. While the opposition party Labor has called for a Senate inquiry, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s response has been to downplay the reports, suggesting that many were not “substantiated” and announcing that he would not “be defamed” by the story.

Meanwhile, campaigners, charities and the politicians support the idea of shutting down Nauru and allowing those interned there to live in Australia, but the recent closure of Papua New Guinea’s Manus centre (another of Australia’s offshore detention facilities) sets a depressing precedent. Peter Dutton ruled out the prospect of the detainees settling in Australia, instead announcing that they could either remain on PNG or return to their country of origin.

Julie is realistic about the obstacles that AWSWN face in finding better treatment and support for women and children refugees on Nauru:

“I don’t know what we can do next. We’ve got to make it that it becomes more imperative for the government to declare an amnesty and shut these places down than to continue them, but I don’t know how. The only way is to allow the public sense of outrage and scandal to affect the way the political parties position themselves.”

It’s time for Australia to reflect on the actions of its government and decide what it stands for, she says. “I adore this country, I love this place, but I am utterly ashamed of what has happened here on so many levels.”

*A fake name has been used to protect the girl's identity
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