What did the Immigration Department know about repeated incidents of rape, sexual harassment and violence on Nauru, and when did it know it?

That was the core issue under consideration at yesterday’s hearing by the Senate inquiry into “Recent Allegations relating to Conditions and Circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru” when Immigration Department head Mike Pezzullo and his functionaries attended.

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Pezzullo sees himself as a bureaucratic tough guy. Bob Carr noted that Pezzullo boasted to him of being “the original Cold Warrior” when it came to China. Last year Pezzullo bizarrely declared that Customs was “in a war”. His reaction at Senate estimates when non-government senators sought to obtain information often entirely unrelated to “on-water matters” about Operation Sovereign Borders was aggressive and dismissive. He has attacked journalists as “bottom feeders”. But yesterday any tough guy performance would have been problematic given the extensive evidence that Immigration knew for a long time that women and children were being raped on Nauru, and ignored the problem.

In particular, the extensive submission to the inquiry by Viktoria Vibhakar, a former Save the Children Australia employee on Nauru who also gave evidence yesterday, raises major questions. Much of the evidence to the inquiry — as Pezzullo was quick to argue yesterday — is not detailed enough for proper investigation, or based on hearsay. Not Vibhakar’s submission. She has chapter and verse on dozens of incidents, often with supporting documentation or detail: case example 2, an employee who failed a background check who was allowed to work near children; case example 3, an adolescent boy sexually assaulted by a contractor in November 2013, and he and his family later subjected to death threats. Case examples 4 and 5, of small girls exhibiting sexualised behaviour or alleging they’d been sexually assaulted. Case example 6, a two-year old repeatedly physically abused by his mentally ill mother, with little done to prevent it. Case examples 7, 8 and 9 about sexual harassment of women. Case examples 10-14 of children sexually assaulted or sexually harassed.

On and on it goes, over dozens of examples, in often sickening detail. So detailed and so significant is her submission that the committee has already asked Save the Children, Wilson Security (the outfit contracted to provided security for the detention facilities, which apparently includes stalking Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young when she visited) and overall facilities contractor Transfield to respond. In each of their responses, they confirm key details of her claims while trying to pass the buck to other service providers or downplay them.

So Immigration can’t wave away Vibhakar’s claims, particularly in relation to the third example. Vibhakar provided evidence that the department had been informed that the boy, “Danny”,  had been sexually assaulted in November 2013. Another witness for the inquiry, Kirsty Diallo, has provided evidence that then-immigration minister Scott Morrison himself was informed of the incident at the end of 2013.

But Morrison and his department did nothing about sexual assault at the Nauru facilities until October last year, when Philip Moss, former head of the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, was appointed to review the problem — and to substantiate the department’s claims that Save the Children Australia staff were encouraging protest action and self-harm among detainees. Moss’s report, which failed to find any evidence for the department’s claims about staff, embarrassed the department and was snuck out on a Friday after Malcolm Fraser’s death was announced.

Announcing the Moss inquiry, Morrison suggested some of the claims about sexual assault had been fabricated. But he also strongly implied he had only recently become aware of them. “The matters that have been brought to my attention are concerning, certainly the allegations of sexual misconduct are abhorrent. and I would be horrified to think that things of that nature have taken place.”

As the evidence before the inquiry shows, Morrison and his department knew nearly a year earlier about sexual assaults occurring in Australia’s detention facilities.

“It’s not a strategy of brutalisation; it’s a strategy of neglect in the face of evidence that people are being brutalised.”

Pezzullo’s strategy was to insist the department had never said it had not been aware of sexual assaults before October. At one stage, Pezzullo couldn’t help his trademark aggression emerging when Labor Senator Kim Carr pressed him on this. Early on in the hearing, Immigration had told Hanson-Young that the department had received 50 reports of assaults since 2012 relating to Nauru (bearing in mind that’s when Labor re-started offshore processing). The Department’s officers couldn’t break that number down — they cleverly took on notice how many related to children and adults, and how many were physical assaults versus sexual assaults.

It was that report of 50 assaults that Pezzullo employed as an obscuring mechanism for the issue of what Immigration knew about sexual assaults, particularly of children. Pressed on why the government had waited until October last year to conduct an inquiry, Pezzullo couldn’t explain it beyond referring to a “concerted period” of “written allegations”.

Another aspect of Pezzullo’s defence is that all of this is the responsibility of Nauru, not the department or the government — indeed, that was the first argument he offered in his opening statement. They just pay for the facilities; it’s the contractors who manage them and the Nauruan government that has jurisdiction over them. Those 50 reports of assault had been handed to Nauru authorities, and no further action taken by the department until the Moss inquiry (the Nauruan authorities have only convicted two people so far in relation to the 50 reports).

This “nothing to do with us” argument was succinctly demolished by the Human Rights Commission in its submission, which also notes that the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has similarly dismissed this argument:

“Australia cannot avoid its human rights obligations under international law by transferring asylum seekers to a third country. If Australia has ‘effective control’ over asylum seekers whom it has transferred to another country, or over a regional processing centre to which they have been transferred, then it is bound to continue to treat them consistently with human rights treaties to which Australia is a party.”

Pezzullo plainly didn’t have much faith in this “it’s not our responsibility” argument, because he immediately followed it in his opening statement by claiming that the department did not have a deliberate policy of brutalising detainees:

“There is no explicit or implied strategy of ‘brutalisation’, which is designed to break the will of asylum seekers, and serve as a deterrent to others. This is a fictional narrative which serves the purposes of those who are opposed to regional processing, which is the policy of the government of the day.”

This is the moral centre of the entire argument, and it deserves addressing in detail. Regional processing — and in particular, the commitment that asylum seekers arriving by boat will never be settled in Australia — has been effective in stopping maritime arrivals, even if it has merely tended to push the refugee problem, and refugee deaths at sea, away from Australia. Anyone who supports stopping boat arrivals and the deaths that inevitably accompany them must acknowledge the role of regional processing in stopping them (as left-wing critics like to point out, I have supported regional processing for some years now).

But contrary to Pezzullo, this does not somehow shut down genuine concerns about the conditions in which regional processing is carried out. In their recommendation for the re-establishment of regional processing in 2011, Angus Houston, Paris Aristotle and Michael L’Estrange argued for processing in which asylum seekers would be properly cared for and given appropriate health and educational services while they waited out the “no advantage” period, which may have been some years. But what Pezzullo in effect argues is that criticism of the detention regime amounts to criticism of the very idea of regional processing and is therefore illegitimate.

And he offers another, bigger straw man. The department doesn’t need a “strategy” of brutalisation to serve as a deterrent to asylum seekers. All it needs to do is outsource processing to a country with limited standards of child protection and poor governance, hand the running of processing facilities to private contractors keen to minimise costs and use local staff wherever they can and then, as the evidence shows, turn a blind eye to what results. It’s not a strategy of brutalisation; it’s a strategy of neglect in the face of evidence that people are being brutalised.

This is what the Immigration Department is, what the government and the opposition is, what we are: people who know about the sexual assault of women and children in our detention camps and the maintenance of conditions in those camps in which women and children don’t feel safe, and who do little about it except act as a postbox to negligent and incompetent local authorities.

It’s evil. And one day there’ll be a reckoning for it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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