Ex-Aid Worker: Abuse Of Refugee Children On Nauru Was Mostly Ignored

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A closeup satellite image of the Australian-run detention camp on the Pacific Island nation of Nauru taken in July 2013.
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Australia has a controversial policy of intercepting refugees and migrants at sea and sending them to detention centers, paid for by Australia, in remote island nations. One of those centers is on Nauru, a tiny speck in the Pacific Ocean with just 10,000 citizens.

The refugees and migrants come from many troubled countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, and some of them, including children, have complained of abuse at the Australian camp on Nauru.

Australia's immigration minister, Peter Dutton, has played down these allegations, claiming most are about small issues, and reiterating that the asylum seekers will not be allowed to come to Australia. He argues that such a move would give "smugglers a green light."

But Viktoria Vibhakar, a former aid worker for Save The Children Australia, says abuse is a serious problem at the detention camp and has been largely ignored. She was hired to work in Nauru in 2013, and spent a year coming and going to the island.

"One of the first things I got, which was the most striking, was a deed of confidentiality, which was a couple pages and it basically said, you cannot say anything about what goes on in this facility and if you do, you are liable for two years in jail for each disclosure."

Vibhakar spoke by Skype with NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep.

"In the beginning we'd go out to the detention facility, which is basically a place of barren rock, phosphate rock, with jagged pinnacles with little natural vegetation and very bright light because the glare of the sun is incredibly oppressive," she said. "The asylum seekers were housed in vinyl tents, and we would go and meet with them and ask them how they were doing, and Steve, as time went on I felt like my job was just convincing people to stay alive."

What was the first case that came to your attention that made you think something is seriously wrong here?

"Three days into my first rotation on Nauru there was an adolescent boy who had been sexually assaulted. The child was living in fear of this sexual assault being repeated not just to him but to his mother who was living without a partner in the detention facility."

Who was the alleged abuser, according to the victims?

"So it was an employee who was a cleaner. And he actually admitted to the sexual assault, and while the security guards were making note of the sexual assault and taking the boy's report, the person who sexually assaulted the young boy continued to mock him. And see there was a complete lack of privacy in this detention facility, so here is a boy having to report a sexual assault and he is doing it in the open air, in front of guards, while the abuser is standing there mocking him. And see what was really amazing to me is here was a Save the Children manager there and she told me at the time that this person was going to be moved to a different detention facility within Nauru but that he wasn't going to be fired. And she said this just as a matter of, this was just normal, you have to accept it, this is just the way it is."

[Vibhakar went on to say the employee was eventually fired.]

What were you supposed to do when you were told of abuse?

"We were supposed to fill out an incident report immediately, but see, there was no child protection agency in Nauru so there was no statutory protection function. And the biggest issue about children and their safety was that we were never allowed to remove them from harm. So the Australian government never gave Save the Children the authority to remove children if they felt that they were unsafe. Reporting abuse is not adequate if the child is still subjected to further abuse. But this was the case in Nauru."

Did anyone have the authority to remove a child from harm?

"Only the Department of Immigration and Border Protection of the government Australia and they refused."

Did they have people there?

"Yes, they did but they interacted almost very rarely with asylum seekers and they refused to remove children."

What did you do when it became apparent, in your view, that there was widespread abuse and that nobody was doing anything about it?

"So there was an Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into children and immigration detention which is the human rights government agency in Australia. They had called this inquiry and after reviewing the information that my organization had provided voluntarily to this inquiry, I found that it lacked very important details, namely they failed to disclose the physical and sexual assault of children and the lack of safety of children."

So Save the Children Australia was questioned by this inquiry and didn't pass on information so far as you could tell, that you knew?

"Yes. That's correct."

So what did you do?

"I chose to make a report, an anonymous report to the [Australian] Human Rights Commission detailing the abuse and systemic violations of human right to children and families on Nauru and I attached several thousand pages of documentation as well and I sent it to the commission."

How physically did you send those several thousand documents?

"I did it by mail ... I wore a baseball cap and wore sunglasses and went to a post office farther from my house and paid cash because I was so scared of the Australian government."

So did you have a moment as that package went through the slot, well, that's two years in jail?

"I had many of those moments. Because it's, each disclosure is two years in jail so I had many, many of those scary moments and, of course, I was eventually referred to the Australian federal police with nine other of my colleagues."

Her documents are among many that have now been leaked about the abuse of refugees on the island of Nauru. As it happened, the Australian police never came for Vibhakar. But she did lose her job with Save the Children. That organization said Australia only let it serve the refugees, if it kept its work confidential. What, if anything, has changed for the better?

"Well I have to be honest, in Nauru, it's only gotten worse. Their mental health has deteriorated and hopelessness and the despair has increased. The this is undisputed by the Australian government. They know that this is causing harm."

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In this report, Viktoria Vibhakar recalls being told that a man who sexually assaulted a young boy at a detention center on Nauru would not lose his job, but would be moved to a different detention center. But Vibhakar went on to say, in a part of the interview that was not broadcast, that the man was eventually fired. Still, she added, "the fact that a Save the Children manager would ask me and my colleague, who was the case manager, to accept the idea that this person was just going to be transferred" was a sign that "there was something so wrong" at the detention center.