Inside Manus Island: sexual assault allegations rife
Documents from the Manus Island detention centre show numerous reports of asylum seekers fearful of being sexually assaulted. The Citizen journalists Michael Roddan, Chris Shearer, Rose Iser and Bec Zajac report.
Allegations of sexual assault and bullying among asylum seekers have been commonplace at the Manus Island detention centre, according to documents seen by The Citizen and supported by the comments of former employees. The alleged victims include asylum seekers who are said to be teenagers.
Former employees interviewed by The Citizen said that when they arrived on Manus Island they were informed by other workers that rape, self-harm and attempted suicide were simply a “part of the system”.
Minutes of weekly meetings attended by representatives of the various organisations working on Manus Island over 2013 and into this year include reports that asylum seekers were physically intimidated and sexually assaulted and felt unsafe, particularly around the camp’s bathrooms.
Minutes dated May 1, 2013, reveal that a representative of security firm G4S admitted it was “difficult to police what clients are doing around the camp”, when referring to asylum seekers’ safety concerns.
Asylum seekers who complained of sexual assault or intimidation inside the camp were sometimes moved between compounds, but it was rare for action to be taken against alleged perpetrators, former Manus employees told The Citizen.
They said security staff would often turn a blind eye to likely sexual assault by claiming the sex was probably consensual and that the people involved were gay. The employees did not believe this to be the case.
Minutes of meetings held between March 2013 and January this year show many asylum seekers continually complained that the bathrooms were unsafe, and that they feared being assaulted while using them.
Concerns about alleged intimidation and other offences were reflected in the minutes dated March 20, 2013, in which G4S noted that it would ensure security staff were “not only watching but also listening for verbal abuse of clients in secluded areas like the bathroom”.
But little improvement was recorded. Minutes dated May 1, 2013, record a representative of International Health and Medical Services, the contractor responsible for the health care of the detainees, as saying: “In general there are some clients reporting feeling unsafe and experiencing intimidation.”
Meeting minutes also document individual cases in which asylum seekers, including teenagers, expressed fears for their safety. They show that staff believed that an Afghan male, said to be 16, had been sexually assaulted. The minutes note that “[t]here have been allegations that [he] could be the victim of sexual assault inside the centre”, and that he “stated he had a fear of going to the toilets due to safety concerns”.
While the young man had denied being assaulted, the IHMS believed there was the “potential he may not be disclosing information”. The minutes recorded that staff had seen him appearing “frustrated and panicked” and concerned for “his safety and welfare in the centre”.
The former employees also said an asylum seeker had informed them that a Myanmar man, believed to be about 18, was being raped regularly in the bathrooms.
The wide-ranging allegations of harassment and intimidation at Manus Island are recorded across various documents seen by The Citizen.
Allegations of sexual abuse were investigated in 2013 by Robert Cornall, the senior retired public servant whose report on fatal riots at the detention centre was released earlier this week. In his September 2013 report, Cornall found that allegations aired on the SBS program Dateline and reported in The Age were not substantiated. In particular, he found that claims particular transferees had been sexually abused, raped and tortured with the full knowledge of staff were not true.
However, the documents and minutes of meetings seen by The Citizen show that allegations persisted. Asylum seekers continued to report unwanted sexual advances and fear of sexual assault until at least January this year, with a 19-year-old Iraqi asking to be removed from his compound after reporting difficulty sleeping and having become increasingly irritable.
The man had just started taking sleeping tablets and had ongoing thoughts of self-harm in the light of what he said was continuing harassment. According to the files, he asked the visiting psychologist “that he be able to have some respite anywhere, as he is exhausted and feels that his resources are depleted”.
Minutes dated June 6, 2013 reveal that a man exposed himself to a 17-year-old Sri Lankan. A week later, staff reported a change in the teenager’s behaviour. He was angry and had begun fighting with others in the compound.
In another case, a Pakistani asylum seeker, who said he was 17, was recorded in March as saying he was “scared of other people because they can do anything to me”.
Two months later he reported other asylum seekers had intimidated him in the bathrooms and made offensive gestures with their naked bodies. He said he felt “unsafe in the compound, especially around the bathroom areas”, according to minutes dated June 6, 2013. They add that the manhad reported “other community members making sexually explicit comments”, and claimed he would “not shower until his buddy is available” due to fears for his safety.
Minutes of a meeting held a week later record that the young Pakistani man had shown a worker bruises on his arm, claiming someone in the compound had tried to grab him. The bruises were severe enough to be visible a week-and-a-half after the alleged assault.
These minutes also show that despite G4S staff members being instructed to patrol the bathroom areas more frequently, asylum seekers reported they were “often not present”.