Last week, the tiny island of Nauru in the Pacific Ocean made the headlines again, as politicians from several countries, including Australia and Denmark who intended on visiting a refugee detention camp on the island, were denied visas.

  • With a detainee population of 543 asylum seekers, many of whom had come from Somalia or Iran, Nauru is one of several small Pacific islands harboring offshore Australian immigration detention facilities.
  • Under Australia’s policy of mandatory immigration detention, whereby any illegal refugee can be detained for up to 5 years, these sites are witness to countless cases of human rights violations, many involving child abuse.

The operation of offshore detention centers, authorized since 2001 under several agreements between the Australian government and other small Pacific nations, is shrouded in an abnormal amount of secrecy, especially concerning the treatment of detainees.

Why is this happening?

Both parties in fact benefit hugely from the continuation of these programs, as Australia sends a strong message to asylum seekers and prevents many from making boat journeys, while islands such as Nauru receive generous financial support in exchange for their cooperation.

It is in fact thanks to the Australian government’s support that Nauru has been able to shield itself from scrutiny, as NGOs and journalists alike are consistently being denied access. While visits by UNHCR representatives are permitted, the resulting reports urging Australian and Nauruan officials to end the program have so far amounted to very little.

A story of wide-scale systemic abuse

Still, despite tightly controlled media access to the refugee camps on Nauru, the Guardian managed last August to get its hands on a leaked database containing over 2,000 reported ‘incidents’ between 2013 and 2015 only. More than half of the reports involved minors, with notably:

  • 59 reports of assault on children
  • 30 of self-harm involving children
  • 159 of attempted self-harm on children

Perhaps even more terrifying is thinking about what is not being reported in these documents. A vast majority of the leaked files showed self-inflicted harm or prisoner-on-prisoner abuse, and none ever mentioned harm caused by staffers on detainees. Broadspectrum Limited, the company that was contracted out by the Australian government to run facilities such as those on Nauru, has itself admitted at a Senate hearing that it had received 67 allegations of child abuse up until May 2015, 30 of which were against detention centre staff. Interviews conducted by the Guardian and Al Jazeera with some of the refugees on Nauru showed unimaginable levels of cruelty and gruesomeness to which refugees were exposed systematically.

It is this never-ending abuse which has motivated so many to lose all hope, leading some detainees to carry out desperate actions. Earlier this year, a 23 year-old Iranian man set himself on fire at the centre during a visit by UNHCR officials. He later died from his injuries. More generally, the number of cases of self-immolation and suicide attempts has risen dramatically over the past 12 months. Psychiatrist Peter Young, who worked with Australian offshore detention centers between 2011 and 2014 told Al Jazeera in an interview: “The whole system of detention is geared towards removing hope for people, so they agree to go back to where they came from.”

Another major cause for concern concerns the living conditions of refugees outside the camp. Since January this year, the detention centre on Nauru has allowed refugees to go out on the island, leading to only more abuse against them, only this time by Nauru residents themselves, with many children facing brutality at school, while 3 sexual assaults on refugee women outside of the camp were reported.

A beacon for hope?

Despite several allegations of international law violations made against the Australian and Nauruan governments, very little has changed in recent times, which goes to show once more the limits of the international system for resolving human rights abuses in the Western world. The solution, however, may well come from an unexpected actor.

Earlier this year, Ferrovial, a Spanish company which previously acquired 90% of Broadspectrum Limited, the company which had been contracted out by the Australian government to run its offshore detention centers, released a statement in which it declared it would not bid for a new mandate over the centre. As the public pressure for closing the centre in Nauru is incredibly high, companies are less and less likely to take up a contract which, by associating their name with human rights violations and atrocities, may not only hurt their image, but also their business prospects.

Furthermore, the Australian and Papua New Guinean governments have both confirmed this summer that the Manus Island offshore facility, also managed by Broadspectrum, would close. This followed a decision by the PNG supreme court.

Though no one knows yet how and when said closure would happen, or what will happen to the inmate population, this decision hopefully will pave the way for Nauru’s centers to close as well.