Refugee Women on Nauru

This blog post contains references to sexual and physical assault that may be distressing to some readers.

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A protester on Nauru holds up a placard complaining about the treatment of women and children asylum seekers.
Refugee Rights Action Network: Victoria Martin-IversonSource: ABCABC

s99, a name given by the Federal Court to a young African refugee, was unconscious and suffering an epileptic seizure when she was raped.  She had been transferred to Nauru by the Australian government after fleeing persecution in her home country. As with all refugees in Nauru she had been held in a detention centre paid for by the Australian government, and had subsequently been ‘released’ into the Nauruan community. It was then that she was raped, as a result of which she became pregnant.

There was strong medical evidence that s99 needed an abortion a fact that the Australian government accepted.  However, abortion is not an option on Nauru because it is both unsafe and illegal there. s99 had been a victim of female genital mutilation, this combined with her epilepsy and poor mental health, meant that she required specialised treatment that could be provided to her in Australia. Yet the Australian government, reluctant to bring her to Australia, transferred her to PNG where abortion was both illegal and unsafe. The Federal court ultimately decided that the Minister for Immigration had a duty of care to s99 to provide her with a safe and lawful abortion and ordered her transfer to Australia.

Tragically, s99’s story of physical and sexual abuse and lack of medical assistance is not an anomaly on the tiny island of Nauru which has been caught up in Australia’s border protection policies.

Only 48 women remain detained in the immigration detention facility in Nauru. Hundreds of women, however, including both single women and women with family groups live in the Nauruan community- their presence made possible by funding from the Australian government. These women have been found to be refugees and have been ‘resettled’ on the island. They are not permitted to leave the island except to return to their home countries, which as refugees, is not a viable option.

Policy of Deterrence at Work

These women are the victims of Australia’s policy of deterrence. Australia has attempted to stop refugees and asylum seekers from coming to our shores by ‘deterring’ them from seeking to enter our territory. As Greg Lake, one of the architects of Australia’s offshore processing regime has admitted, the policy of ‘deterrence’ is little more than ‘making conditions for those people worse than if they’d never come to Australia… In practice, that meant constructing an environment of hopelessness.’ That is, the suffering of refugees is not an accidental by‑product of Australia’s approach to those who seek its protection but a systematic and methodical tactic.

The evidence of the suffering of asylum seekers and refugees under Australia’s policies is irrefutable. Human Rights Watch reports that:

refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru routinely face neglect by health workers and other service providers who have been hired by the Australian government, as well as frequent unpunished assaults by local Nauruans. They also endure unnecessary delays and at times denial of medical care, even for life-threatening conditions. Many have dire mental health problems and suffer overwhelming despair – self-harm and suicide attempts are frequent. All refugees and asylum seekers face prolonged uncertainty about their future.

Shockingly every single refugee or asylum seeker interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported ‘intimidation, harassment, or violence directed at them or family members’ on Nauru. It is not difficult to see why Roger Cohen of the New York Times has stated that Australia’s offshore processing regime ‘follows textbook rules for the administering of cruelty.’

In the words of Mina Taherkhani,, a 36 year old refugee trapped on Nauru: ‘The Australian government utilises all of their tools to make us soulless and numb. They have normalised our deprivation, fatality and death.’

The Vulnerable Position of Women and Girls on Nauru

The abuse, self-harm and neglect of asylum seekers in Nauru violates the human rights of all refugees and asylum seekers. However, women and girls are vulnerable to suffering some of the most pronounced negative impacts of Australia’s policy of transferring refugees to offshore centres for detention, processing and even resettlement.

Women and girls are highly vulnerable to gendered forms of violence on Nauru such as groping, touching, explicit threats, and rape.  Lack of secure housing is a significant issue for women in Nauru. Women also do not feel safe leaving their accommodation alone. There is strong evidence that the Nauran police have failed to protect women from sexual and physical abuse or to investigate allegations from victims of rape.

In addition, women are more likely to suffer adverse health problems as a result of ‘catastrophic’ health facilities. Pregnant women, in particular, face greater risks to their well-being because of poor conditions.

The Nauru files, leaked incident reports written by staff in Australia’s detention centre on Nauru between 2013 and 2015 revealed hundreds of allegations, including 28 of sexual harassment, assault or abuse and 23 of assault or battery. They also documented how women held in Nauru attempted or threatened suicide 70 times, and committed or attempted self-harm 144 times.

A report commissioned by the Australian government, by Mr Phillip Moss AM also found it was likely that guards working at the detention centre at Nauru had sexually exploited refugees and asylum seekers in exchange for access to shower facilities; that women had been raped; and that adults and children had been physically and sexually assaulted.

The impact of detention on children can also have a devastating effect on refugees and asylum seekers including mothers. As UNHCR explains:

the absence of family or community support and the challenging physical
environment place young children (zero to five years) at significant risk of
compromised development from emotional, cognitive and physical
perspectives. In this context, the intolerable situation for asylum-seekers
and refugees, as well as the breakdown of normal family structures and
intra-familial relationships may place women and children at heightened
risk. Living in these conditions, as well as a physically hostile environment
in poorly ventilated tents, is especially traumatizing to children, in the
context of mandatory and open-ended detention that will exacerbate or
precipitate mental and physical illness into the future for them.

Fighting the Policy 

Australia’s policy of ‘deterrence’ which includes the transfer of women asylum seekers and refugees to Nauru would not continue if it did not enjoy the support of many Australian people or if the Australian government did not think they could get away with human rights abuses. This gives us, Australians, more power than we are sometimes led to believe or are willing to admit.

It is important to listen to the voices of refugees and asylum seekers themselves in any attempt to join in their struggle for human rights and dignity. As Mina Taherkhani, further explains,  ‘If Australia would like to support [women on Nauru], please make an opportunity for us to talk to the community.’

Hearing the voices of refugees and asylum seekers is difficult, however, because of a concerted effort by the Australian government to keep refugees far from the reach of the media, scholars and civil society.  Nevertheless, we must try to ensure those deliberately silenced have a voice and one way of doing this is to follow refugees and asylum seekers in our offshore centres on social media.

The policy of offshore processing resumed in 2012 and has continued for almost 5 years. For this reason much of the Australian media and many Australians no longer see the suffering of those in our offshore camps worthy of attention. However, for the men, women and children suffering through our regime the pain is no less real today than it was when they were first transferred to Australia’s detention islands. For this reason, our constant attention and our defiance will ensure that the refugees and asylum seekers sent to our offshore centres are not forgotten.

As outlined in another blog,  we also need to talk to our friends, our family and our communities about what is going on. We must be public in our concern. We need to use social media and all avenues available to us to draw attention to the plight of asylum seekers and refugees caught in Australia’s border protection policies.

It has been reported that the United States begun resettling a small group of refugees from Nauru and Manus Island last week. It should be noted that this resettlement deal is not the answer to ending the current crisis on Manus Island or Nauru. The deal is uncertain with no guarantees as to who will be resettled and when they will be resettled. The US has never claimed to be willing to take all refugees and asylum seekers transferred by Australia to its offshore centres. Whilst there is hope that some refugees will be able to begin a new life in the United States, the only way of ensuring that Australia abides by its international obligations and stops the cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of asylum seekers and refugees for whom it has responsibility, is to close the centres on Nauru and Manus and resettle all refugees in Australia.

This is not impossible to achieve. Successful campaigns such as the #letthemstay campaign shows what is possible and that there is hope. The #letthemstay campaign was built to stop the Australian government from sending back to Nauru a group of vulnerable women and babies who had been transferred to Australia for medical attention. It led to many families being permitted to remain in Australia. The campaign involved numerous rallies in support of refugees and asylum seekers around the country, the willingness of churches to engage in civil disobedience, and doctors refusing to release vulnerable women and children from hospital for fear of their transfer to Nauru.  A recent attempt to cut income support and government housing for this same group of refugees and asylum seekers was met with further political action and resulted in more than 100 people receiving direct support from the Victorian government.

The success of the #letthemstay campaign has not been enough because the Australian government is now attempting to circumvent the gains made in the campaign by refusing to give refugees and asylum seekers in desperate need of medical attention access to Australian territory. Despite the Federal Court’s decision in s99, it was recently reported that refugee women transferred to Nauru who were seeking to terminate pregnancies and others in need of medical transfer were being refused medical care in Australia for fear that they would remain in Australia. This is not to say, however, that the #letthemstay campaign did not vastly improve the lives of the women and children at the heart of the struggle. The campaign #letthemstay shows that government policy can be changed but not in a single campaign.  The success was only a step in a much broader movement.

What is happening in our offshore centres is not inevitable. It is an expensive and deliberate policy that we can and we must change.

 

 

First act of the family law review should be using research we already have

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We already have a great deal of high-quality information about what works, and what doesn’t, in our family law system. shutterstock

This article appeared in The Conversation on 4 October 2016. Information about the first holistic  review of the family law system since it was created in 1974 can be found on the Australian Law Reform Commission website.

Renata Alexander, Monash University

On September 27, Attorney-General George Brandis commissioned the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) to undertake what he described as “the first comprehensive review of the family law system” since the commencement of the Family Law Act in January 1976.

The terms of reference are extremely wide-ranging. Producing a report by March 31, 2019, seems overly ambitious.

There has been universal support for such a review from key players in family law, as well as those more on the periphery such as politicians espousing party-dictated views or representing individual (usually aggrieved) constituents.

As much as such a review will serve a valuable purpose, it is important to remember that our family law system has not remained static for the last four decades. There have been numerous significant reforms not only to the statute itself, but to the operation of courts determining family law cases, and allied areas such as family dispute resolution and counselling.

The Family Law Act initially introduced several revolutionary changes. For example, it established the Family Court of Australia; introduced “no-fault” divorce; and totally revamped laws about determining children’s cases and property settlement.

It also set up a new system of alternative dispute resolution and established the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) as a dedicated research body, along with the Family Law Council (FLC) as a representative body to monitor and advise the federal government on operational and policy matters.

Since then, various aspects of our family law system have been examined and changed.


Further reading: No simple solution when families meet the law


Family law legislation has undergone significant expansion and reform. It now covers divorce, nullity, parental responsibilities and obligations in respect of all children, and children’s rights.

It covers de facto relationships (marriage is dealt with specifically by the Marriage Act), spousal maintenance, division of property binding financial agreements, and family violence. There are now two federal family law courts, but they are overburdened and have long waiting lists.

Researchers too have not been idle. For example, the 1980s and 1990s saw a plethora of reports by the ALRC about domestic violence (1986), matrimonial property (1987), contempt (1987), multiculturalism and family law (1991), justice for women (1994), and complex child contact cases (1995).

More recently, the ALRC has produced two substantial reports on family violence.

In addition, the AIFS, the FLC and the family law courts have each produced numerous reports on a wide range of areas including child protection, parenting arrangements post-separation, and family violence.

The Family Law Act established the Family Court of Australia. Shutterstock

There have also been important bipartisan state and federal parliamentary inquiries, most notably the federal inquiry into child custody arrangements in the event of family separation. This in turn produced “Every picture tells a story” in 2003 and the parliamentary inquiry into how family law can better support and protect those affected by family violence in 2017.

All these resources reflect a rich but largely unconnected tapestry of information about our family law system, which the ALRC can use to assess how best to reform the system.

Yes, the ALRC review of the Australian family law system is most welcome. However, it need not waste precious time or resources to remind us, as Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, that “all happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.

Notwithstanding the wide terms of reference, some other areas merit attention. These include the use of “good” evidence-based social science in determining the best interests of children and crafting parenting orders.

Another area is access to justice. The high cost of legal representation and cuts to legal aid mean large numbers of self-represented litigants. Also there is the question of mandatory education for judges and legal professionals in areas such as family violence and child abuse, which comprise over half of the courts’ work loads.

We know that families are complex entities when intact. And it is equally complex and complicated catering to the needs of adults and children once those family structures break down.

New Podcast: The Scarlet Letter speaks to Dr Kate Seear

In this episode of the Scarlet Letter we talk to Dr Kate Seear about the origins of her feminism. We also learn about her work on addiction and the law, as well as her well-known football podcast, the Outer Sanctum.

kate seear

Dr Kate Seear

Interviewers: Dr Azadeh Dastyari and Tamara Wilkinson.