Claims Probed Of Brutal Conditions For Refugees On Island Of Nauru
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's visit an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It's called Nauru, a small country with nothing but water visible on every side. It sounds alluring, but few outsiders willingly visit. Anna Neistat recently became one of them.
ANNA NEISTAT: It's the smallness island state. It's closest to Australia, but it is in the middle of nowhere. When you arrive to the island, you think your plane is going to land in the ocean because of how small it is.
INSKEEP: Neistat works for Amnesty International, and she traveled to that island because Australia pays people there to detain refugees, people who wanted to reach Australia but were diverted there instead. This week, The Guardian published documents reporting the refugees are being abused. Neistat heard graphic stories herself. She joined us via Skype from Paris to talk about her journey to that island.
NEISTAT: First of all, you cannot get there. Part of the operation was keeping it completely closed from the outside world, and I've never seen such level of secrecy. Amnesty International, over the last two years, applied six times for a visit, and we were either ignored or rejected. So I was able to go there in my personal capacity without revealing my organizational affiliation. If I could just add very quickly - what's also very important is how everybody who works on the island is essentially sworn into silence. Under Australian law, you face two years in jail if you dare to disclose anything about the situation in Nauru.
INSKEEP: What is the facility itself? Does it look like a little town, like a camp, a building? What do you see?
NEISTAT: The camp itself is basically rows of tents, and about 400 asylum-seekers and some refugees are still there. The rest of them are now being provided accommodation in the community. But quite honestly, at this point, it's really not the accommodation or the living conditions that drive people to the brink of suicide.
INSKEEP: What's going on?
NEISTAT: Regular - we're not talking several incidents. Regular, systematic attacks from local population. People are hacked with machetes.
INSKEEP: Did you say hacked with machetes?
NEISTAT: Yes. Their houses are being broken into. Every single woman I spoke to told me that they cannot go out because now they're absolutely at the mercy of the locals.
INSKEEP: We've been reading some of these documents that were reported - released by The Guardian, which described lots of incidents involving children - a case of inappropriate touching of a boy, a case of a girl who said she was cut from under - I'll leave that right there - a boy who was picked up physically and thrown by a guard. This is the kind of thing that you learned about when you were there.
NEISTAT: Exactly. And moreover, I recognized some of the cases that I documented in the files. For example, there is one case of a boy who was among a group of children the - a guard threw rocks into. And this boy was the one who got hit in the face and his lip got split and his teeth damaged, and he has been extremely traumatized. And ever since, his mother, who was in quite distressed situation before, tried to commit suicide several times. And right now, she's confined to a - sort of this makeshift psychiatric ward in one of the camps, and she's been there for two months. Her condition is not improving at all. And, of course, her husband, whom I spoke to at length, is in a state of absolute despair.
INSKEEP: Where are the refugees from?
NEISTAT: It's a map of conflict when you look at where they're coming from, so Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia. There are quite a few Rohingyas coming from Bangladesh and other countries. And you can imagine, right, it's not just crossing the border from one country to another. You really need to have very good reasons to flee from your country, spending days and sometimes weeks in the sea where almost every one of them thought they would die. And so now to think that Australia is essentially pushing them to go back because they're not giving them any other option is just inconceivable.
INSKEEP: Why were they aiming for Australia? Did they not know that they would be thrown out of the country or kept out of the country?
NEISTAT: Quite a few of them came right as Australia adopted this policy. The policy was adopted on July 19, 2013, and quite a few people that I spoke to arrived there just a few days after. Some of them have family there. In fact, there are quite a few split families where part of the family made it to Australia before the policy was adopted and the other part of the family was sent to Nauru. Some just believe that Australia's a champion of human rights, children's rights, women's rights, and that that's where they would be able to live in peace. And now they feel quite deceived.
INSKEEP: What have Australian officials said when you have informed them you went and met refugees who once thought that Australia was a beacon of freedom and equal rights, as you said, and they've discovered they're not even allowed in Australia and they're kept on an island?
NEISTAT: So far, the Australia's response has been essentially blatant denial. Their answers range from this is in no way our responsibility, it is all the authorities of Nauru, so that's who you should be speaking to, which is the argument that doesn't really pass the laugh test, given that Australia is paying for the whole thing and employing everybody who works there. Or they say that it is all lies, that refugees are living in perfect conditions. And finally, they say that this is necessary to prevent other people from coming to Australia by boat, so to prevent them from dying in the sea or to combat smuggling.
INSKEEP: I'm calling you from a country, the United States, where a lot of people think about refugees as a security threat at this point in time. Were the refugees you met security threats?
NEISTAT: I'm glad you asked me this question - very few journalists did. The refugees I met on Nauru were amazing, and, again, I don't say it lightly. I've spoken to obviously lots of refugees around the world, and, of course, you have empathy for all of them. But these people do stand out. All of them are highly educated. They're nurses, art teachers, electrical engineers. Many of them speak fluent English, for example. Seventy percent of people have been recognized as refugees, so nobody questioning their claim. But what I kept thinking is that they would be such a great asset to any society, including the Australian society. There are many young people with a huge desire to learn and a lot to offer. And so far, they haven't been to school for three years.
INSKEEP: Thanks very much.
NEISTAT: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Anna Neistat is senior director of research at Amnesty International. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.