The Liberal government, with ALP support, in June passed extraordinary legislation that prevents staff from reporting abuse in detention centres.
The Border Force Act 2015, in effect from 1 July, imposes a two-year jail term for “entrusted persons” who disclose “protected information”. This is another attempt to hide from public view the disgusting reality of Australian detention centres.
Long-time refugee advocate Victoria Martin-Iverson spoke to Red Flag about what the government is covering up on Nauru. “Children have no safe place to play, people are living for years on end in dirty, mouldy tents”, she said.
“Children are wading through open sewage to use filthy backed-up toilets. There’s improper hygiene, insufficient showers and at times insufficient drinking water and out-of-date food and baby food being served.
“You’ve got guards literally exposing themselves to women … and there are no consequences for them. You’ve got women being perved on in their tents; they’ve got no privacy.
“The system is profoundly cruel. And profoundly cruel, nasty and vicious people can get away with almost anything. There are no consequences for them”, she said.
Martin-Iverson is in touch with a number of detainees. “They tell me, ‘When we go to have a shower we’re only allowed 2 minutes, if you want more time than that you need to barter with the guards who oversee the showers’.
“Sometimes that bartering can be cigarettes. Sometimes that bartering can be ‘Show us your tits’ or ‘Show us your child’s naked body’.
“There is sexual harassment, physical abuse, physical abuse of children, women and sexual abuse of women, children and men by guards”, Martin-Iverson explains.
“On Nauru, Save the Children staff were reporting the abuse through the approved channels … and saying things like ‘I just saw a guard sitting with a child on his lap masturbating’. Ten of the staff who reported the abuse internally were fired for it. Fired.
“This legislation runs the risk of making it open season on women, children and men on Nauru, and in all of our detention centres, who will be put at further risk. This government has facilitated sexual, physical and psychological abuse and is going to penalise anyone who exposes that.”
Groups including the Australian Education Union and the Australian Medical Association have strongly condemned the laws.
An open letter signed by more than 40 former doctors, social workers, nurses and others who have served in detention centres dares the government to prosecute them. It is an important stand. The letter reads, in part:
“We have advocated, and will continue to advocate, for the health of those for whom we have a duty of care, despite the threats of imprisonment, because standing by and watching sub-standard and harmful care, child abuse and gross violations of human rights is not ethically justifiable.
“If we witness child abuse in Australia we are legally obliged to report it to child protection authorities. If we witness child abuse in detention centres, we can go to prison for attempting to advocate for them effectively.
“Internal reporting mechanisms such as they are have failed to remove children from detention; a situation that is itself recognised as a form of systematic child abuse …
“We are aware that in publishing this letter we may be prosecuted under the Border Force Act and we challenge the department to prosecute so that these issues may be discussed in open court and in the full view of the Australian public.”One of the signatories, Dr Peter Young, told the Guardian: “It is an unjust law that should be resisted”.