Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Asylum seekers hit Earth's rock bottom

Nauru files show Australia — our mate and ‘family’ — being the architect of a human rights disgrace.
The leaked files include cases of children on Nauru having been subjected to acts of violence and sexual abuse.
The leaked files include cases of children on Nauru having been subjected to acts of violence and sexual abuse.

Down here at the southern end of the Earth, human rights abuses very often seem like the stuff of faraway lands. But there's this one country - and to be honest you probably have heard of it - that has set alarm bells ringing among humanitarian groups in recent weeks. This country is attracting widespread criticism for incarcerating would-be refugees in camps outside its borders.

These men, women and children, most of whom have fled persecution or violence in their homelands, are being warehoused in what look like client states. They are trapped in squalid conditions, surrounded by violence, intimidation and misery.

Children especially are vulnerable to acts of violence, to sexual abuse, to near-quotidian occurrences of self-harm. A leak of documents this week reveals a place of routine, almost mundane cruelty - a place where loathing, despair and suicide lurk around every corner.

The country responsible for this humanitarian scandal is not, of course, some lawless third-world autocracy.

It is Australia, in the shape of its detention facility on Nauru, the world's smallest island state, and a bleeding sore in Australia's policy to stop asylum-seeking "boat people". Australia: our Tasman neighbour, our mates - indeed, in one prime minister's recent diplo-schtick, "We are more than friends, we are family." Australia: architect of a human rights disgrace, as detailed in a chilling series of more than 2000 "incident reports" from its offshore facility in Nauru, leaked this week to Guardian Australia.

The files, which cover a period of two years and five months up to October 2015, include seven reports of sexual assault on children, 59 accounts of assault on children and 30 incidents of self-harm involving children. Scrawled at the top of many of them are the words "Rating changed by Wilsons", denoting a differing view on the severity of the incident by Wilson Security - a corporate cousin of the universally beloved Wilsons Parking NZ - who staff the camp under contract to the Australian Government.

The full horror of the documents only reveals itself in its scale, but by way of example, in one report a school teacher recounts a young assistant's request for a longer 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."

Many of the case workers who filled out the incident reports were employees of Save the Children. One of these employees, who emphasises they had nothing to do with the leak, said this week that the published reports were "just the tip of the iceberg ... nowhere near the full extent of the incident reports written". Another said: "Despite the clinical and objective language we have used in our professional roles these reports document intense suffering experienced by families, children and individuals and are irrefutable evidence of the harm caused by offshore detention."

In recent years Australia has faced numerous criticisms for its offshore detention policy, including over facilities in Papua New Guinea's Manus Island and Christmas Island, where scores of New Zealand citizens have been held. Children had been detained in "a state of gross neglect", said Australia's Human Rights Commission. Health workers have complained of unsafe practices and "gross departures from generally accepted medical standards". The Australian Government responded by legislating to outlaw former detention centre workers speaking out.

The Nauru leak shows that the abusive practices in the detention camps go deeper and wider than reported before. And it blows a lid on Australian efforts to muzzle criticism. Canberra's penchant for secrecy continued in the official responses this week, which attempted to dismiss the revelations as "historical".

While it has been made extremely difficult for humanitarian observers and journalists to visit the offshore camps, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch managed to successfully send two researchers to Nauru recently, where they spoke with 84 people in detention and outside the camp on the island. Their report, published last week, depicts lives riven by abuse and desperation. The authors conclude that it is inconceivable Canberra would not be aware of what was going on.

"The Australian Government has engaged in one of the most successful mass cover-ups I've witnessed in my career of documenting human rights violations," argued Amnesty research director Anna Neistat.

That finding echoes remarks from Peter Young, the offshore detention system's former chief psychiatrist. Two years ago he said that he believed harm was deliberately being inflicted by the Australian state and that an "inherently toxic" environment was gravely damaging the inhabitants' mental health. He added: "If we take the definition of torture to be the deliberate harming of people in order to coerce them into a desired outcome, I think it does fulfil that definition."

Late last year Australia had its turn at being reviewed by the UN Human Rights Council. About half the delegates who spoke at the Geneva meeting criticised Australia's detention policy, some calling it a breach of the UN refugee convention. New Zealand? Yeah, nah. There was no direct criticism of the Australian approach, despite the fact that the Christmas Island issue was in headlines at the time.

"We do not need to go to Geneva to do that," said John Key. "We do it in person."

At the time of writing, the prime minister has yet to make any comment on the latest Nauru revelations, beyond remarking that he hadn't read the reports.

When he does get a chance to read them, being a reasonable man, he'll surely feel obliged, morally and politically, to urgently reiterate New Zealand's offer of accommodating 150 refugees from their offshore detention centres. And to state, in public as well as in person, loudly and clearly, that the "Pacific solution" being pursued by our sibling across the Tasman is shameful, deplorable and inhumane.

- NZ Herald

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Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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