You may have heard about Nauru on a recent This American Life episode: the tiny Pacific island that was stripped of all vegetation and made virtually uninhabitable by phosphate mining, then turned into an international pariah by its desperate practice of selling citizenship to crooks, now an offshore detention centre for people seeking asylum in Australia, where cruelty and abuse are legendary.
Australia's practice of imprisoning asylum seekers in Nauru has long been the subject of criticism by human rights activists, who pointed to whistleblower accounts of rampant abuse, especially directed against the children on the island, often perpetrated by teachers, guards, health workers, and caseworkers paid by the Australian government to run the camp.
Now, a trove of 2,000 leaked reports from Nauru has been published by the Guardian, and the abuse these documents reveal is far worse than even the most repellent whistleblower accounts published to date. They are filled with the tales of children — many girls under 10 years old — who have been raped and sexually assaulted with impunity, while officials took no notice or, worse, told survivors and their parents that this was the way of things and it wouldn't be any better in Australia where rape "is very common and people don't get punished" (this quote from a "cultural adviser" for Wilson Security, the security contractor for Nauru's concentration camp).
The reports are not proven facts — they are reports. But most have never been investigated by the very people who are charged with verifying the facts in reports like this — and those people are often the same people accused of committing the worst abuses.
Also in the leaks are many, many reports of self-harm and suicide attempts, including self-harm inflicted by minors. The children imprisoned on Nauru are especially traumatised. The living conditions are beyond squalorous: the people on Nauru live among vermin, with inadequate health care and lack of access to basic medical supplies, such as urinary incontinence pads.
Both Australia's and Nauru's governments have banned journalists from the island, insisting that they would be able to regulate themselves better without outside scrutiny.
Nauru is a stain on the national conscience of Australia, a country struggling to come to grips with its genocidal past, which commits many of the same sins even as it promises "never again."
The reports range from a guard allegedly grabbing a boy and threatening to kill him once he is living in the community to guards allegedly slapping children in the face. In September 2014 a teacher reported that a young classroom helper had requested a four-minute shower instead of a two-minute shower. "Her request has been accepted on condition of sexual favours. It is a male security person. She did not state if this has or hasn't occurred. The security officer wants to view a boy or girl having a shower."
Some reports contain distressing examples of behaviour by traumatised children. According to a report from September 2014, a girl had sewn her lips together. A guard saw her and began laughing at her. In July that year a child under the age of 10 undressed and invited a group of adults to insert their fingers into her vagina; in February 2015 a young girl gestured to her vagina and said a male asylum seeker "cut her from under".
In the files there are seven reports of sexual assault of children, 59 reports of assault on children, 30 of self-harm involving children and 159 of threatened self-harm involving children.
The reports show extraordinary acts of desperation. One pregnant woman, after being told she would need to give birth on Nauru in October 2015, was agitated and in tears. "I give my baby to Australia to look after," she pleaded with a caseworker, adding: "I don't want to have my baby in PNG, the [Nauru hospital] or have it in this dirty environment."
The Nauru files: cache of 2,000 leaked reports reveal scale of abuse of children in Australian offshore detention
[Paul Farrell, Nick Evershed and Helen Davidson/The Guardian]