A controversial offshore detention facility that houses more than 500 people seeking asylum in Australia is legal, a court in the country ruled on Wednesday. As a consequence of the Australian High Court’s decision, more than 250 people who were brought from the facility on Papua New Guinea’s Nauru Island will be sent back.
Many of the women and children who filed the case in an attempt to stay in Australia say they were victims of sexual violence at the detention facility, which some have compared to a prison. One of them is a five-year-old boy, who was allegedly a victim of rape.
“Like many other children who are very distressed he regressed, he began bed-wetting, he became very anxious about his mother’s well-being, he actually began to self-harm, as I’ve seen several other children do as well, and eventually he was transferred over to the mainland for treatment,” Dr. Karen Zwi, a pediatrician who treated him, told the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC).
“We hardly ever see young children and adolescents so traumatized by life that they would want to take their own life,” Dr. Hasantha Gunasekera, another pediatrician, said.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, both pediatricians risked prison sentences for speaking out about the condition of Nauru detainees they treated in Australia. The doctors have called for the children to remain in the country, where they can continue their schooling and receive adequate healthcare.
According to the detainees, sexual violence is prevalent in the facility, which houses about 1400 detainees in rudimentary conditions. Nauru officials, on the other hand, including Police Commissioner Corey Caleb, have rejected this claim.
“Refugees regularly fabricate allegations of assault and sexual assault,” he said in a statement.
Even so, some of the women who were brought to Australia say they are afraid of returning to Nauru.
“I am too scared to go back to that place, my life will not be safe,” an asylum seeker from Sri Lanka told the Guardian Australia following the decision. “If I am sent back to Nauru, I will commit suicide.”
Identified by the pseudonym Durga, the woman said that she was drugged and sexually assaulted at the detention center. Claiming to have faced rape and torture during years of civil war in her native country, she did not expect such treatment when she boarded a boat for Australia in 2014.
Instead of a new start, Durga found a repeat of the violence she had already suffered when she was sent to Nauru.
“In the tents, there were no locks, there could come into my tent at any time, and guards would threaten me and grab me. I was scared all the time.” She said that she was given sleeping pills to help her overcome her anxiety, but they only led to a worse fate.
“I was raped while I was taking the sleeping tablets I had been provided. I told the mental health nurse, who took my complaint seriously, and I was moved to Australia.”
Local police have rarely held proper investigations into such claims. According to an inquiry by the Australian Senate, operators at the detention center have referred 50 causes to Nauruan police. Although charges were filed in five cases, not one of them has been prosecuted.
The Human Rights Law Center (HRLC), a Melbourne-based advocacy organization, brought the case challenging the Australian government’s right to hold asylum seekers on foreign soil, on behalf of 260 people who were transferred from Nauru to Australia for medical treatment. The group includes women like Durga who claim to have been sexually assaulted, as well as more than fifty children and three dozen babies – many of whom were born in the detention center.
“The legality is one thing, the morality is another. Ripping kids out of primary schools and sending them to be indefinitely warehoused on a tiny remote island is wrong,” Daniel Webb of HRLC said in a statement. “[I]t would be fundamentally wrong for the Government to condemn these families to a life in limbo on Nauru.”
And although the High Court has ruled that the facility is legal, it also suggests that “the government cannot support an offshore detention regime that goes beyond what is reasonably necessary for processing,” according to Madeline Gleeson of the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law.
Some of the detainees have been held on Nauru for years, however, and little is known about the efforts made to process their cases. Still, Gleeson said that the acknowledgement that the facility is meant to provide temporary housing for those whose asylum cases are being processed leaves the “legal door left slightly ajar” for further cases.
“I don’t want any special treatment, I just want protection and freedom, that is all,” said Durga. “I want to live without fear of being sent back to that place. I want to feel safe again.”