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*Pic: Love Makes A Way sit-in for asylum seekers, at the office of Malcolm Turnbull MP. Photo: Kate Ausburn, Flickr.

Australia’s appalling treatment of refugees on Nauru is the talk of the world, writes John Martinkus.

Last Thursday, I went to my local pub for dinner. I live in a town where the only local newspaper is owned by Murdoch.

I had a choice of two papers to read. The Herald Sun and The Mercury. Neither of which carried any reference to the Nauru leaks and the stories of Australian abuse of detainees that had dominated international news for the previous twenty four hours.

Australia has been getting a bit of press internationally over the Guardian leaks. CNN, The New York Times, the Russian network RT, papers in Lebanon, Germany, Jordan, the UK even Israel have all run the abuse story on Nauru prominently.

Australia internationally in the last few days has only really been mentioned in relation to the fact we torture children, sanction sexual abuse against women and beat up men in our offshore detention centres. To the point many try to kill themselves.

So for the punters down the local, watching sport on Sky and maybe occasionally glancing at the beer stained Murdoch tabloids on the bar, this revelation, confirmation of their own governments systematic abuse of those they lock up offshore for the supposed crime of seeking asylum seemingly hadn’t even happened. Internationally it was a different story.

Let’s have a look at some of the coverage: Take CNN for example, a staple for airport lounges, hotels and viewers all over the world. Veteran anchor Kristie Lu Stout hosted an extended interview with Guardian correspondent Paul Farrell.

Here is how the world saw the intro to the story: “There’s a damning new report on the treatment of asylum seekers, especially children, at Australia’s offshore detention centre on the Pacific island of Nauru. A document leaked to the Guardian newspaper highlights 2000 cases including assault, sexual abuse and child abuse. CNN cannot confirm the authenticity but the allegations match those made by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International says they detailed a dysfunctional and cruel system but the Australian government told CNN that many of the reports were unconfirmed allegations. Earlier I spoke to the Guardians Paul Farrell in Sydney and began by asking him what the leaked documents reveal: There are constant allegations and reports of self harm attempts, sexual assault allegations, of abuse, all kinds of horrible things and these are truly staggering to read, I mean this is the largest leak we have ever seen from inside Australia’s detention network it really paints a picture that is quite devastating”.

Ok so that is the Americans and most of the world’s impression. Let’s have a look further afield. Russian English language network RT ran with: New Nauru files leak exposes horrifying abuse of kids at Australia’s island detention centres. It went on to document “The leaks reveal 1,086 incidents involving children, who make up only 18 percent of Nauru’s 442 detainees. There are 59 reports of assault on children within the files.

Perhaps the most chilling reports come from incidents of children acting abnormally, likely as a result of trauma and their internment.

One girl sewed her mouth shut, and a guard reacted by laughing. Another girl pointed to her vagina and said a male detainee “cut her from under.” Ok so that is the Russians take on Australia’s behavior.

Let’s have a look at the other massive country in the world, China:

The report went on to state: “Victimized by constant physical and mental violence, refugees and asylum seekers in Nauru camps were suffering from severe psychological trauma and mental health problems.

“Australia’s policy of exiling asylum seekers who arrive by boat is cruel in the extreme,” said Anna Neistat, senior director for research at Amnesty International. “Few other countries go to such length to deliberately inflict suffering on people seeking safety and freedom.”


In response to the Nauru files, the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection said in a statement on Wednesday that many of the incident reports reflect “unconfirmed allegations or uncorroborated statements and claims—they are not statements of proven fact.” Ok so that is what half the worlds population is reading about Australia.

Now let’s move on to some countries that do have serious refugee problems. Lebanon for example. They now host 1.1 million Syrian refugees:

and are saying they cannot cope. Lebanon has a population of 4.467 million. They find Australia’s treatment of refugees disturbing:

The prominent report went on to detail: “The reports allege such incidents as guards threatening a boy with death and only allowing a young woman a longer shower in return for sexual favors. Mental stress caused by prolonged detention was deemed to be the cause of alleged cases of self-harm, including a woman trying to hang herself and a girl sowing her lips together. One girl wrote in her school book in 2014 that “she was tired, doesn’t like camp and wants to die”. The report said she wrote: “I want DEATH” and “I need death”.

Think of it a country where almost one in four people are refugees seeking shelter is outraged by Australia’s treatment of the handful of asylum seeker on Nauru.

Australia has a population of roughly 24 million. Yet we do this to what? 1500 people. We do not have a refugee problem. If I was a Lebanese journalist I’d give this story a big run too. I mean you’d be living in a society accommodating almost one in four people who had fled war. Australia’s stance and actions in Nauru must seem pretty petty from that standpoint.

Lastly what about the old dart. The motherland for sentimental Australians of an anglo saxon background. What do they think of what Australia is doing on Nauru and Manus. Here is one from The Daily Mail, not what I would call a left wing rag, more akin to the UK’s Herald Sun:

Stating the bleeding obvious they said: “Nauru, which charges foreign journalists AUD$8,000 (£4,500) for a visa application and restricts access to social networking sites such as Facebook, this year experienced a series of suicides and incidents of detainees hurting themselves in protests over their treatment.”

On Sunday more reports emerged of refugees being assaulted on Australia’s other detention island Manus in Papua New Guinea. For once a Photographer, Matthew Abbott, was there to document the two refugees beaten up in the local town of Lorengau: 

They were on day release from detention. That is part of the strategy by the current minister Peter Dutton to stymie efforts by the Papuan New Guinea government to declare that detention centre illegal (which they already have in their Supreme Court). Now the refugees there are not “detainees” they are allowed out in to town where they are free according to the Australian government, which is why they argue, the centres do not need to close. But the reality is the locals don’t want them there and they are really just free to be beaten up. Which is very similar to what last week’s Guardian Leaks revealed about the treatment of refugees Australia detains in Nauru.

They seem to be free to be victims of sexual assault, violence, child abuse at the hands of both their Australian guards and locals employed at that centre if you read the reports written by the staff themselves.

I could go on and on all day. There are a lot of articles about this out there. It started with Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison and their rhetoric. Now we have the hapless Peter Dutton stammering internationally that the reports of abuse are unsubstantiated. The truth is they are not alleged. The leaked reports were written by people who work for the immigration minister, whether it be by contract or directly. No amount of obfuscation by the minister can get around that. The rest of the world is not buying it. Australia’s reputation is suffering as a result, even if the blokes at the local pub with their beer soaked Murdoch rags don’t know about it, the rest of the world does. 

John Martinkus has covered conflicts in East Timor, Aceh, West Papua, Iraq, Afghanistan, The Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka for the last twenty years. He has written three books and A Quarterly Essay, first hand accounts of the wars in East Timor, Aceh, Iraq and West Papua. He currently lives in Hobart.

• John Biggs in Comments: This is or should be deeply embarrassing to all Australians (apart from some screwball senators) and especially to any government responsible for this—and that is both Coalition and Labor governments. I simply cannot understand how a responsible government can go into denial or worse, like that bloodless psychopathic Dutton, blame the victims and say it’s all their fault and they deserve what they get. This is Nazism. Or like tricky Morrison say they are only allegations and are yet to be proven. The government must apologise, compensate and bring all Nauru and Manus asylum seekers back to Australia. Anything less than that after what those poor people have gone through (in the name of stopping boats for God’s sake) would be unacceptable to all decent people. I could see that Russia and China, with all their breaches of human rights, would be crowing with delight at the opportunity to damn Australia for human rights breaches, but to be shamed by all those other basically civilised countries must cut any decent politician who was and is party to this cruelty to the quick.