Frequently asked questions: Women seeking asylum


What is Nauru? . . .

Nauru is a tiny island nation (the smallest in the world) located in the South Pacific sea, 3000 kilometres from the coast of northeast Australia. The resident population of Nauru is only 10,000 living on an area measuring just 21 square kilometers. 75% of the once beautiful island is uninhabitable due to the damage caused by mining phosphate which was the main source of income before it became largely depleted in the 1980s. The economy is now heavily dependant on foreign aid and the ‘detention industry’ funded by Australia.

The Australian Government pays Broadspectrum (previously Transfield) $1.2 billion for management of the centre. Under the agreement with the Nauruan Government, Australia also pays a $1,000 monthly visa fee for each person seeking asylum who is held on the island.

Why are people seeking asylum being sent there? . . .

The Australian Government has entered into an agreement with the Government of Nauru to host an immigration detention centre on its territory. A similar agreement is in place with the Government of Papua New Guinea for Manus Island. Both centres are operated by Broadspectrum (formerly Transfield), a private for profit operation.

Under current Australian Government policy, any person seeking asylum who reaches Australian shores without a valid visa is sent to Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) with no hope of ever settling in Australia - even if they are granted refugee status. They will only be offered resettlement in Papua New Guinea, Nauru or Cambodia. While the Nauru detention centre holds women, men and children, Manus Island currently has only men.

The PNG Supreme Court recently ruled that the Manus Island detention centre is illegal and breaches basic human liberty. The PNG Government has announced that it will close the centre. The Australian Government is yet to outline its plan for the men currently in detention on the island.

What is an ‘open’ detention centre? . . .

The Nauruan Government declared in October 2015 that the Nauru detention centre would become an ‘open’ centre allowing people inside the centre to move freely around the island. The announcement was made just days before the Australian High Court heard a challenge against offshore processing brought before it by a Bangladeshi woman seeking to prevent her return to Nauru. This means that people are now free to come and go from the detention centre. However, there is nowhere to go on Nauru, and many refugees are fearful of abuse and the unwelcoming attitudes of the local Nauruan people.

Some refugees have been ‘released’ into the community. However,the new accommodation outside the centre, is unguarded and remote. There are media reports of break-ins, regular sexual taunts, threats and actual attacks on refugees with no arrests made by the local police. Abdiaziz Farah, a community leader in contact with some of the 86 Somalis on Nauru has said, "There is a huge sense of insecurity and the constant threat of sexual abuse. They describe it as living in constant fear." Somali women and an Iranian woman have allegedly been raped while living outside the detention centre.

How long can people seeking asylum be kept in detention? . . .

There is no set time limit to how long a person can be held in detention. It can vary from a few weeks to months or years.

The uncertainty of not knowing how long you might be kept in detention has a severely damaging effect on the mental health of people seeking asylum. It makes it impossible for people to make plans for their future.

As of the end of February 2016, Immigration Department statistics show the average period of time a person would spend in detention was 464 days. At this date 454 people had been held in detention for over 2 years. Some people on Nauru have been in detention for three years, and others on the mainland have been held for as long as seven years.

How many people are in detention? . . .

As of the end of February 2016 there were 1,753 people in Australian detention centres including 194 women. Nauru held an additional 470 people including 55 women and 50 children. Manus Island held 909 men. There were also 267 people (including 70 babies) from Nauru in Australia receiving medical support. The Government has stated that these people will eventually be returned to Nauru.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection publishes statistics on number of people in immigration detention and how long they have been in detention for. The statistics are updated monthly.

What are living conditions like on Nauru? . . .

The physical layout of the Nauru detention centre has created an unsafe environment in which sexual assault and exploitation can take place. The diminished privacy created by living in tents is humiliating for all people seeking asylum.

An asylum seeker mother describes her dread of being sent back to the unlivable conditions in the Nauru camp:
“Every day counting time! Ok today might be my turn to be transferred back to hell by the name of Nauru! In my nightmares, walking around the detention centre under 50 degrees centigrade hot weather on sharp hot stones, living in hot plastic tents like an oven without having any air conditioner, looking forward to seeing a cold bottle of water, or even having a good shower not for yourself even, just for little kids full of heat rash on their skins. Having sleep, if you can, in a mouldy situation full of bugs, cockroaches, mice and spiders. Above all no security and safety even inside the detention centre.”

What do we know about sexual violence towards women and girls on Nauru? . . .

A 2015 Senate Committee report has outlined very concerning evidence relating to the sexual harassment of young girls and women in Nauru.

Broadspectrum Services (formerly Transfield), which operates the centre, reported to the Committee that 30 formal allegations of child abuse had been made against staff, 15 allegations of sexual assault or rape, and 4 allegations relating to the exchange of sexual favours for contraband. The Committee was deeply concerned that without its inquiry, the allegations heard and evidence received would not have been uncovered. And it’s what we don’t know that is also concerning. Many women are scared to tell their stories as they fear it will negatively impact their success of settlement.

The Moss Review 2015 reported claims of sexual harassment and abuse of women in the Nauru centre, including three allegations of rape. The Review also raised concerns that sexual assault was likely to be under-reported due to family or cultural reasons and a climate of fear about their future refugee status. The Review found a concerning lack of oversight by the private contractor.