Freeing refugees from detention will not protect women like Abyan

Originally published in Crikey

I spent the night of Christmas 2014 in a tiny room in a refugee camp on Nauru, surrounded by a scared group of 11 Somali women. I don’t know if the refugee known as Abyan was among them, although I suspect she was. These women crowded around, each desperate to tell her story of fear and abuse.

Beatings and attempted rapes had been reported to police and ignored. Local men had taken to creeping around the back of their guarded camp at night and banging on their windows. They told me they slept in their jeans.

Earlier that night, a photographer and I had easily slipped past the sleeping guard who was meant to protect the camp from such invasions. It was the same guard, said Majma, who had broken into her room and beaten her for moving a fridge.

“Even if you complain, this is our home country, this is Nauru,” he told her.

The Somali women are a separate high-risk class of refugee on the island — single women. Unlike the many Iranian families we met, all of them travelled from Somalia to Australia alone.

They spent a year and a half in detention centres in the middle of the island before being released into the Nauruan community, with only each other for protection.

They all said that, as bad as detention was, living in the community was worse and they wanted to return to the unsafe safety of their former prison. One told me she had made a formal request to the Australian Immigration Department to return to detention. The request was refused.

Two of them have since reported they have been raped, and on Tuesday the UN’s peak  human rights body found it necessary to intervene to protect these women under joint Australian and Nauruan care. In doing so, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) highlighted the reason refugees become even more exposed once released.

“Impunity for such serious crimes increases the risk they will be repeated,” said a spokesman for the OHCHR, which was created under a convention of which Australia is a founding member. “Women are also less likely to speak out if they fear reprisals and see little to no chance of justice being done.”

The spokesman said the UN body was “disturbed” by the rising trend of uninvestigated and unsolved allegations of rape on Nauru.

The Moss report has painted a picture of the hell refugees were exposed to as they waited in detention for their their asylum claims to be processed. Yet at least in detention there was the possibility of an independent inquiry. There will be no such investigation of abuses that occur under Nauruan jurisdiction.

The Nauruan government’s recent announcement that it intends to empty the detentions centres will move 600 more refugees from a situation in which they are abused with limited recourse, to one where there is no recourse at all.

History tells us that abuse flourishes within self-regulating communities. The Nauruan community is bound by familial and clan ties. These allegiances complicate the Western-style rule of law, represented by the island’s police force and government. Refugees have no place within these cultural protections.

When it comes to violence against women, the Nauruan nation has its own demons. By Nauru’s own admission, women in Nauru are increasingly subjected to violence from men.

“The majority of cases reported to police are withdrawn, and only a few get to have a day in court,” according to a government report to the UN.

It is in this context that Abyan’s traumatised distrust of Australian and Nauruan authorities appears clear and rational.

The UN spokesman said that the OHCHR had spoken with Abyan, whose desire to terminate her pregnancy in Australia was curtailed by a sudden and secretive deportation back to Nauru.

“She has refused to give information to the Nauru police about her attacker because she is understandably afraid of reprisals. She does not feel safe, given that her alleged attacker lives on Nauru,” he said.

The UN also cited the Nauruan government’s release to the Australian media of the identity of another Somali woman who complained of being raped by two men in September. In a situation where rapists know they will not be punished, this was not only a breach of her privacy, but also her security.

It is vital here to be sensitive to the Nauruan perspective. There is no excusing rape or rapists, nor police who appear more interested in protecting the perpetrators. But the original fault lies with Australia’s revival of the Pacific Solution.

The introduction of a proportionately vast foreign underclass, including women on their own, to a country of just 10,000 people was bound to have a hugely destabilising impact on Nauruan society. There was no way, without an overwhelming breach of Nauruan sovereignty, that Australia could oversee the protection of these refugees. As such it was inevitable that a system of institutionalised abuse would emerge.

This may reek of hindsight. But consider this. Eleven Somali women saw it coming last year, told the Australian government, and we turned them away.

All names have been changed to protect the identity of refugees.

Stories from inside Nauru

First published in the Guardian

“I didn’t want to live in this world any more. I don’t want to be alive the next day. I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to open my eyes. No hope. Disappointed.”

Refugees who have been settled on the Pacific island of Nauru under Australia’s offshore asylum policy have told the Guardian in covert interviews of their deep sense of helplessness, and fear of Nauruans who resent their presence.

Since May, more than 400 people who were detained after trying to arrive in Australia by boat have been found to be refugees and released into an island population of less than 10,000. Their arrival has convulsed Nauruan society and there is growing antipathy towards them.

They live in several guarded camps dotted around the island. Their cramped quarters provide the basics, but little more. In the following interviews they describe a monotonous and unsafe existence devoid of hope. Many are escaping through a heavy regimen of sleeping pills. Depression is ubiquitous.

The refugees’ future is uncertain. The Nauruan government has given them five-year visas; Australia has said they will never be allowed to settle there.

Tony Abbott’s government has pursued the policy vigorously, but the Australian stance is essentially bipartisan. It was the former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd who made the announcement that still defines Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers: “Arriving in Australia by boat will no longer mean settlement in Australia,” he said before the 2013 election (in which Abbott eventually trounced him). Rudd’s policy drew criticism from the UN’s refugee agency who warned the policy was likely to harm the “physical and psycho-social wellbeing of transferees”.

The date Rudd made his speech, 19 July, 2013, has become notorious among asylum seekers – an arbitrary marker of the capricious immigration politics that has left them in limbo. Many have family or friends who left Indonesia days before them and are now settled in Australia.

The policy achieved its goals. The boats to Australia have (mostly) stopped. But not without a cost.

The following interviews were conducted in the refugees’ accommodation on Nauru while local security guards slept outside. Nauru has effectively banned foreign journalists, making it difficult for refugees to explain their plight, or for the Australian public to scrutinise the consequences of its government’s immigration policy.

All names have been changed to protect the refugees. The refugees pictured have covered their faces for safety, not for religious reasons.

Read on at the Guardian.

We Got The PM We Voted For, Says Brown

New Matilda, 13 Dec 2013

Why are Australians so unhappy with their lot? Why do we vote for politicians who want to trash our common heritage? Karl Mathiesen spoke to former Greens leader Bob Brown about the 2013 election.


The results of September’s election lifted the veil on Australian culture to reveal a mean, embittered face, says former Greens leader Bob Brown. Speaking to New Matilda, he said Tony Abbott’s popularity is the articulation of Australia’s conversion from a generous, happy country to one characterised by how much it withholds.

“In the Howard years Australia became a much meaner and more self-interested country … We are the richest people per capita in the world, if you just look in material terms, and we are the richest people ever to live on the Earth,” Brown said

“Yet there’s this air of dissatisfaction and a feeling that we are being cheated, and that is a cultural shift that came out of the Howard years and has been promoted mightily by the Murdoch media — and that flows on through the ABC and all the other radio shock jocks and so on.”

He believes the Labor years did little to challenge the assumption of Howard-Abbott populism that Australians are fundamentally self-serving. This failure meant Labor fought an election on the terms of the Coalition, battling to appeal to voters’ self-interest.

During their period in opposition the Liberals depicted the environmental movement as an enemy of the economy and individual well-being. The antagonistic positioning was overt, deliberate and Australians responded with their votes.

The Liberals went to the election on a platform that included removing layers of environmental regulation, redacting world heritage status from Tasmania’s forests, expanding coal mining in the Galilee basin, opening coal ports that could affect the Great Barrier Reef and removing the $10 billion Clean Energy Fund. But these were mere pallbearers at the funeral of the carbon tax.

“People voted for that with their eyes wide open,” Brown said. “And I might add to that, that they voted for $4 billion dollars in foreign aid to be not spent.”

Australia was dishonoured with the Colossal Fossil award from the Climate Action Network, for their disruptive attitude to the Warsaw climate talks in November. The UN’s former climate chief, Yvo de Boer, said in November that Australia’s attitude had shown it to be “a country that would rather stick to a business-as-usual approach rather than building a low-carbon growth model”.

“Australia has generally been seen as a champion of environmental innovation, particularly in climate change,” Brown said. “It is now a pariah in the international arena. But people voted for that, Australians knew what they were getting and they voted for it.”

His bleak realism should not be mistaken for pessimism. He views self-interest as a hallmark of the times rather than a natural law. Indeed, he says, it bears the seeds of its own destruction.

“I think now it’s starting to tell and I think that [in] this period of government there is a fairly rude awakening occurring in Australia, about whether this is really the country we want to have?” Brown said. “I think that we’re going to see a great strengthening in the direct action from people who do have the intellect who know we do have to protect the biosphere.”

This vision of a future shaped by collective power mounts a challenge against the politics of the self that has so dominated the Australian conversation. Brown remains a staunch democrat. Progressive democracy demands faith in people to make collective decisions based on justice and equality.

There is little doubt who Australia’s ear is bent towards. In September, an electoral tide threatened to sweep the Greens away. Their primary vote dropped by 3.3 per cent across the country. The party clung tenaciously to its numbers in the Senate and their lower house seat in Melbourne.

Brown says the Greens, with their platform of altruism and environmentalism, has suffered from the new, more selfish Australian narrative.

“We’re in a democracy and I’m a very strong democrat and I think it’s a very worrying sign that the self-interest factor is so great that we’re not going to be able to protect the environment in a meaningful fashion in the future.”

“There’s an ennui or a feeling of ‘Why bother?’ or even fatalism — that action doesn’t make any difference — which has to be gotten over. Because if people in wealthy countries like Australia can’t be motivated to get out and defend the future of the planet, and people on the planet, and life on the planet, you can’t ask others to do it.”

The September election was the first federal poll in 23 years where the Greens did not run the iconoclastic Tasmanian doctor on their ticket. Brown vowed to step back from the functioning of the party after this year’s election.

He has used the opportunity to immerse himself in direct action. He has joined Sea Shepherd Australia as its director and is closely overseeing the national expansion of the Save the Tarkine campaign.

“I said on the day I retired that I’d be a Green while ever I draw breath,” he said. “I’m not involved in the politics of the Greens in Canberra, I don’t get involved in their day-to-day politics and I haven’t been to a Greens conference since I retired. Nor do I intend to intervene in politics at that level, I think that would be very remiss. But when it comes to promoting Green philosophy, I’m doing it all over the place.”

Brown says the internet has the power to both galvanise and dilute community activism.

“You can hardly go to your computer without being asked to click on this petition or that petition and I think that’s really beguiling. The view that if you sign this petition against Japanese whaling, that somehow you’ve done something to prevent the Japanese from going south — is beguiling and very false.”

I think there is no substitute for community action in which people band together through a common intelligence for the benefit of the wider community and the future,” Brown adds. “To take direct civil action is going to be hugely important this century. And what I do think is that GetUp! and international organisations like that are a terrific mode for informing people for rapid action.”

Bob Brown rode into politics on a wave of political action in the 1980s. His return to full-time activism coincides with Australians once again taking to the streets. Marches against climate change in November may be the latest sign that we are remembering who we are.

The World Is With Howard On Climate Change

Published in New Matilda

7th November, 2013

Listening to him speak was comforting. Like hearing your father’s voice after a long time apart. John Howard’s idiosyncrasies have grown more pronounced as his seventies have progressed, the pauses and dysfluencies longer, the rhetoric less incisive. It all serves to enhance the vaguely adorable Elmer Fuddiness. In aesthetic terms, it was oddly pleasurable.

The auditorium at London’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers was packed to the oak-lined gunnels to receive the annual lecture of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF).  As a retired warhorse Howard has rarely weighed into public discourse. But preaching to a choir of “climate realists”, Howard seemed at ease.

He made several arguments about climate change, most of which were so tired they were hardly worth waking up and wiping the dribble from their lip. There was the old line about science, by nature, never being resolved. He claimed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been infiltrated by a fifth column of climate ideologues, while saying his own position on climate change is informed by instinct. He dipped into GWPF founder Nigel Lawson’s book, An Appeal to Reason, and pulled out the notion that our grandchildren are waging intergenerational tyranny upon us from the future.

“The present generation should not carry too heavy a burden so that future generations are only 8.4 times better off rather than 9.4 times wealthier,” he said.

As Lenore Taylor pointed out on Wednesday, Howard completely missed the point about the causal link between climate change and bushfires. His speech, called “One religion is Enough”, berated the intolerance of climate “zealots”. Although which single religion he thinks is enough he declined to say.

The audience looked like it had been pressganged from the gentlemen’s clubs of Pall Mall. They all had a chuckle when Howard said there had been a “magnificent change of government” in Australia and how wonderful it was to have centre-right chums ruling Commons at the same time. He really played to the 11 women in the 200-strong crowd when he said: “The history of mankind has told me of his infinite capacity to adapt to the changing circumstances of the environment in which he lives.”

It all seemed rather innocuous; an anachronism, harmless old blokes wagging their chins to the tune of dead ideas. It might have even been a bit embarrassing for Tony Abbott to have his mentor making statements like:

“The high tide of public support for over-zealous action on global warming has passed. My suspicion is that most people in countries like ours have settled into a state of sustained agnosticism on the issue. Of course the climate is changing. It always has. There are mixed views not only about how sustained that warming is, seemingly it has not warmed for the last 15 years, and also the relative contributions of mankind and natural causes.”

But against the temptation to write him off (and gleefully bash Abbott by association) rubs a hard truth: John Howard represents the way the world acts on climate change.

Serious politicians now recognise that climate change rhetoric is in vogue – it won’t do to meet IPCC findings with anything but solemnity and hand wringing. But there exists a vast gap between how the world speaks and how it behaves.

Howard said his long-standing opposition to the Kyoto Protocol had been vindicated by its manifest failure to deliver a global framework to tackle carbon emissions.

He said: “It is highly unlikely that a compact of that kind will ever be achieved. Notwithstanding President Obama’s strong commitment to cap and trade in his state-of-the-union address in February of this year, there remains a bipartisan reluctance in the United States to embrace agreements of this kind.”

Vox Europa says cap-and-trade has become the whipping boy of a poisonous debate in the US Congress, tarnishing it beyond any hope of implementation.

In Australia, Abbott says he is concerned about climate change and that he has the most powerful plan to approach its mitigation. The Direct Action Plan has the added benefit of avoiding confrontation with Australia’s powerful mining sector. But scientists and economists say it won’t work. Just yesterday, Howard’s own Treasury secretary Ken Henry called the policy “bizarre”.

China, India, Brazil and the rest of the world shrug their shoulders and keep on building their middle class any way they can. Europe forges on bloody-mindedly with carbon reduction, but can’t bring the rest of the world with it. And Russia? Let’s not even go there.

Even if every country meets it current carbon reduction pledges, the UN Environment Program predicts the world will still warm beyond the 2C safe target.

Howard also made recommendations on how to mitigate the effects of the warming he is so “agnostic” about. Invest in renewables (if you can afford it) and go nuclear. Which is essentially what the world is doing.

He wrapped up by giving a rousing testimonial to “the shale revolution” which he said was “a real game changer”. He listed as its major benefits its ability to wean the west off middle-eastern oil and reduce the carbon emissions he had just spent an hour saying might not be so bad.

Again, it sounded a little bit like an old fossil going into bat for his namesake fuels. But of course, Howard is right on the money again. It is estimated that thanks to fracking, US natural gas production will increase by 3.4 billion cubic feet per day during 2014 to reach 69.1 Bcf/d by years end.

As Howard ended his speech, the GWPF’s Benny Peiser rose to warn guests that there was a large protest outside. Howard looked bemused. Not for years had one of his speaking appearances been met by a rowdy mob. But of course, it was a coincidence. Masked austerity protesters were remembering the fifth by marching on Guy Fawkes’ old target at nearby Westminster. The announcement plunged the hall into disorder. Most of the blue bloods rushed towards the front exit, keen to rubberneck the protest. Some insisted on using the back in case the riff-raff were dangerous.

Howard stood momentarily still as bodies rushed one way or the other. For a brief second he struck the figure of a confused, elderly man, wondering what all the fuss was about. Then the moment passed, the old shark smile was back. He disappeared through the back door, vigorously pressing flesh with the men who have long stood with him on the brake.