Government hid knowledge of Nauru assaults, open letter alleges

Asylum seekers during a hunger strike in Foxtrot Compound at the Manus Island detention centre. Refugee Action Collective

The government is under renewed pressure over the Nauru detention centre, with a claim that it has known of “the sexual and physical assault of women and children” for at least 17 months.

This was long before the government set up a review last October into allegations of abuse.

In an open letter to the Australian public, former and current employees from the centre said the Immigration department and all service providers were told in writing of several of the assaults detailed in the review by Philip Moss, as well as many other assaults Moss had not mentioned.

In addition to formal incident reports, Immigration department management participated in weekly and daily meetings where these assaults were discussed, the letter said.

“They were also routinely forwarded copies of internal Save the Children meetings regarding particularly vulnerable children for the entire time that women and children have been detained in the centre.

"The statements recently made by Immigration Minister Pater Dutton regarding a ‘zero tolerance’ to sexual abuse do not reflect the attitude or actual response that has been provided to women and children who reported assault and sexual harassment on Nauru.

"We would like to make it absolutely clear: The Government of Australia and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection have tolerated the physical and sexual assault of children, and the sexual harassment and assault of vulnerable women in the centre for more than 17 months.”

It said that in November 2013 a boy was sexually assaulted by a detention centre employee. The incident was substantiated and the Moss review also found the allegations to be credible. Former Immigration minister Scott Morrison had been notified of the assault. Despite this knowledge, the department chose to keep the child in the detention centre where he was assaulted and remained at risk of further abuse and retaliation, the letter said. “Indeed, this child was subjected to further incidents of abuse while he was in detention.”

The letter said incidents about the sexual exploitation of vulnerable women by detention centre staff and others were provided to the department and the senior management of service providers. But the department “refused to remove these women from the unsafe detention environment despite full knowledge of their ongoing sexual harassment and exploitation”.

The letter calls for a royal commission and the transfer to Australia of all asylum seekers in detention in Nauru.

“As current and former employees, we are the only ones with first hand knowledge of the detention centre environment who can speak the truth on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees,” the letter said.

“We believe that all Australians have a right to know what the Australian government continues to do in their name.”

Dutton told Sky that anyone who had information should provide it to him or the department.

Many of the 24 signatories, 16 of whom are anonymous, came from Save the Children. Ten Save the Children workers were expelled from Nauru after claims that they were encouraging protests and self harm – for which the Moss review found no substantiation.

Other signatories include three psychiatrists formerly with International Health and Medical Services, the provider of health care in the detention facilities. One of them is Peter Young, former medical director, mental health services, IHMS, who oversaw mental health services in the detention system generally.

A Senate inquiry has been set up to investigate the Nauru situation, following the damaging findings of the Moss review.