Earlier this month, human rights organisation Australian Women in Support of Women on Nauru (AWSWN) released ‘Protection Denied, Abuse Condoned’ – a report on the ongoing abuse and suffering of asylum seeker and refugee women detained indefinitely on Nauru. Alongside report authors Wendy Bacon, Pamela Curr, Julie Macken, Claire O’Connor is former WA Premier and current Psychology Professor at UWA, Carmen Lawrence. Pelican caught up with Professor Lawrence to talk about the report’s findings, and the means by which we can advocate for a more empathic, reasonable response to the current international humanitarian crisis.

Given the strict punishments for whistle-blowers and investigative journalists covering abuse on Nauru, how were you and the other report authors able to compile information on more recent events?

A lot of people – very brave people – are prepared to put their hands up. You may have seen in particular the doctors working for IHMS [International Health and Medical Services], which is the group contracted to provide medical services. They numbered among our sources, as did some of the former guards and health workers of a more generic kind. Because of what they’ve seen, these individuals are prepared risk the penalties under the Border Force Act.

So far, although there have been obvious indications these people will continue to be investigated, no one has been charged with any offence. I think if that were to ever occur, it would be a cause célèbre; there would be enormous community outrage. The statutes on the books are there to frighten people, to prevent them from speaking up. But it doesn’t stop them.

All of us who wrote the report were in contact with various people. Some of these individuals have gone public, while many chose to remain anonymous. We were careful to protect these people.

The report goes into much detail about the sociopolitical history of Nauru. In what ways do you think its history of colonial administration has given way to subservience to the Australian government?

Well, two ways. One is economic, and is a result of the exploitation of phosphate on Nauru by successive colonial administrations. This was done not just by the Anglosphere, but also the Germans and the Japanese at various times.

Nauru has as a result been left without a substantial economic base. True, some of the poverty and instability is self-inflicted – if you look at the island’s history since it became independent in 1968, there were some very poor decisions made. In fact, at one point Nauru was declared a ‘failed state’; Australia was going to move the entire population to an island off the coast of Queensland because the economic circumstances, the physical circumstances were so poor. But it was because the colonial administration failed to prepare the people for statehood that the situation became and remains so dire.

So really, Australia – one of the administrators along with New Zealand, and to a lesser extent the UK – bears great responsibility for the failure to develop the necessary infrastructure. And in many ways, the pressure placed on Nauru now is reminiscent of the colonial administration of the past. It’s almost as if the Australian government has said, “Well, you’re not really a true state, so we’re just going to push you around”. It’s a very bullying approach to the Nauruan people.

Throughout the writing of the report we were keen not to demonise the people of Nauru. We think they have also suffered a great deal under the successive administrations, as well as their own leaders – both of whom have exploited them pretty horribly.

So would it be reasonable to say there could be significant economic repercussions of the Nauruan government began adequately reporting abuse?

That’s right. We simply do not see the structures on Nauru we would expect to see in a modern state – a decent police force, an independent judiciary capable of functioning without government interference, a statue book that is actually adhered to. There are laws in that statute book that have only been inserted there because of pressure by the Australian government.

So you have a state that isn’t functioning, and a people that are increasingly reliant on the detention centres for what little economic activity there is. This reliance has meant that many Nauruans are reluctant to speak up about the circumstances surrounding the centres, or indeed to offer alternatives. I think one of the problems for the Nauruan government right now is “what do we do with our own people?”

In our report, there is a letter from the young men on Nauru. It is an extraordinary document. It was circulated on the island with the headline ‘Youth of Republic of Nauru’, and basically expresses extremely hostile attitudes to the asylum seekers and refugees on the island. It is clear that – though I’m certainly not condoning what was written, as it is pretty unpleasant – they feel oppressed as well. You can understand why the native population would feel resentful about a bunch of people who are placing even more pressure on a nation which is already under enormous stress.

Given it’s such a tiny landmass as well – tensions are inevitably going to build.

Yes – and it’s clearly one of the problems for the women there. You see your own perpetrator of abuse as you walk to the local supermarket. And this is why some of them retreat and are not moving from their houses – are refusing even to take the necessary actions to get food and water. In one instance, one woman barricaded herself in her own house because she was so traumatised.

In addition to the abuse of interred and resettled asylum seekers, has the breakdown of law and democratic institutions made the island unsafe even for native Nauruan women?

One of the things that we discovered is that there is considerable evidence from Nauruan women, and several reports indicating that there were significant problems within the Nauruan population, before and subsequent to the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers. It also told us that that culture of violence has developed among some of the people on Nauru – not all of them though, by any means.

It is this culture of violence that our current policy approach is feeding. After all, what is the Australian government saying to the people of Nauru? That it is acceptable to treat vulnerable people seeking help in ways that are dehumanised at the very least, and destructive at the worst. What we are doing is reinforcing those tendencies that are existent within the Nauruan community.

A lot of the women have told us and others that when they complain – and most of them don’t, because they don’t have any reason to believe anything will be done – they have been treated as if it’s their fault. That they are the ones who have brought it upon themselves, and should just get over it. There is no sympathy at all for their plight.

There seems an incredible disparity between how we respond to women who have been abused and traumatised on Nauru and Manus Island, as opposed to women who have been victims of the same on the Australian mainland. Here there is immediate follow up, with medical attention, councillors –

– Mind you, that’s pretty recent too! But on the other hand, there is now a decent Australian campaign running (they come and go, so forgive me if I’m a little cynical) to draw attention to violence against women in particular; to develop the appropriate services, and to speak publicly about the influences. What’s causing it, what can be done. Whereas violence on Nauru – which in terms of women affected on the scale of population, is far more severe – is being treated as though it’s not happening. It’s said there are appropriate responses – there are not. There are no judicial responses, there are no consequences for those perpetrating the violence. So there is a very stark double standard.

We understand the report was written by Australian Women in Support of Women on Nauru, a group made up of yourself and the other authors. Can you tell us the origins of this group, and what it hopes to achieve?

Well, I’m sure you recall a case in October last year, which we document in the report, involving a young woman called Abyan. Abyan was seeking to have a termination of pregnancy that resulted from a rape on Nauru. She was pushed and pulled between various political forces, and her life was put on hold whilst people messed around with her fate. We thought that this was unconscionable.

All of us were aware of the problems on Nauru for women and children – men too, particular on Manus. But this focus on sexual exploitation and assault, and physical violence against women seemed to us to be an important focus. It was that moment of seeing how this traumatised woman’s life was being treated that galvanised us into forming a group; it was the trigger. We didn’t see ourselves as separating from the rest of the asylum seeker and refugee advocates, but placing a particular amplification on these experiences which seemed to be becoming more and more frequent – right down to and including suicides and attempted suicides.

In your report, you take issue with the media at large for their lack of oppositional coverage following the reopening of offshore detention centres in 2012. Why do you think the media regarded the reopening as a relative non-issue?

Look, I think there’s been a collective failure of imagination, if I can put it like that. I think the media have accepted the line that there is ‘no other way; there’s no alternative. This is the only solution’. And while some sections of the media will look at what’s happening on Nauru and Manus Island – and some in a dedicated kind of way, to be fair – at the time I think they accepted the view that if they didn’t support this ‘strong’, ‘tough’, ‘take the sugar off the table’ approach, then we’d continue to have deaths at sea.

As I said, I think this just shows a failure of imagination – there are other possibilities. No one is suggesting it is easy. But the idea that you hold one group of people hostage in order to demonstrate to another group of people that life will be even worse than you imagine if you come here, so don’t get on the boat – this is a morally bankrupt position.

If you could draft an alternative policy to Australia’s position on asylum seekers and refugees, what would this look like?

I think there are two issues here. One is, you can identify what is wrong with a particular policy – but that does not mean you have to immediately say what the solution is. The resources are simply not available to the non-government sector to do this. We don’t have the knowledge – we don’t know what’s happening! That’s part of the story here. We don’t know precisely what’s happening within government; we don’t know what the relationship is like with Indonesia on these questions, how many boats have actually left from Indonesia, how many have headed off in other directions. Much of the data is just not available to people such as ourselves and others in the non-government sector in order for us to properly construct a policy.

Yet having acknowledged this, there are a number of things which can be said. Closing the detention centres, bringing people to Australia: these are the first things that can be done. It was precisely what John Howard did – very quietly. Processed asylum seekers were removed from the Pacific Solution, and almost all of them were brought to Australia – more traumatised than they needed to be, but without fanfare. And without any ‘boats starting again’.

It is possible to treat those being hold hostage on Nauru and Manus in a sensible humane fashion. A lot of them are here anyway for health reasons – and a lot more of them would be if they were being properly attended to. At least accept assistance from New Zealand – it is frankly bizarre that we wouldn’t accept that.

After we first deal with the problem of indefinite detention, we can then work with the region to reduce the flow of people in ways that risk their lives. This is a complex, ‘back to source’ question. At the very least it requires careful work with the people in Indonesia and Malaysia – who are facing their own set problems relating to asylum seekers, and are certainly a great deal poorer than we are. If Australia showed genuine good faith in putting in the resources that would help them, then I don’t see how that we could have a worse result. I mean, there is an obscene amount of money already that is spent keeping people in detention.

That was one of the most striking aspects of the report to us – just looking at our detention seeker policy purely in economic terms. Realising that supporting refugees on bridging visas costs something like one tenth of housing people in Nauru.

That’s right. The people who are sent to Nauru, whether they’re health workers or security guards or part of foreign affairs – there’s a whole lot of infrastructure there which is very expensive. I don’t know whether you are aware of this, but there’s an Australian High Commissioner on Nauru. For such a small country, this is very unusual.

There is also a Deputy Australian High Commissioner on Nauru. The Deputy has children, and he sent them to a local Nauruan school, and after three days he withdrew them to be home-schooled. So that’s probably another cost that the Australian government is bearing! At every point it’s a very expensive enterprise; flying people from there to New Guinea, paying for their private hospital, paying for care in a hospital in New Guinea of uncertain character.

You would think that’s one of the most forceful arguments for the Australian public. Even if they don’t care too much about the human cost, they’d be concerned about what it costs them as taxpayers.

Yes, definitely.

Since July 2014 to the present day, there has only been one journalist that the Nauruan government has granted visa access to the island*. This journalist, Chris Kenny, was moreover sympathetic to strong and militarised border security. To what extent do you think media access to the island would make a difference in public opinion and policy?

Well, a lot. I noticed that Bill Shorten indicated that they would open it up under a Labor government. But what’s happened of course is that it’s the Nauruan Government who controls these visas, and they’ve decided that they don’t really want any scrutiny either. So whether a decision by an Australian political party or government to allow this would cut the mustard, well, I don’t know. Possibly they would resort to the strong-arm tactic of successive Australian governments: ‘do this or else’.

But it’s now eight thousand dollars for a visa, and they don’t grant them anyway. The journalist who was part of our group who was trying to go was basically told ‘don’t bother’. Others have tried from the ABC and the Guardian, and they paid their money but were basically knocked back.

Lawyers can’t go either. One of our group was a lawyer who specialised in refugee law – she was essentially told “You should be applying for a business visa because you’ll be touting for business”. Which, of course, she wasn’t. When she did apply they said, “Well you’ll have to ask the Australian government” – but when she went to the Border Force they said, “Well of course not! It’s the Nauruan Government who deals with these things”. She was just bounced around.

In my case they just ignored me. I applied and heard nothing. I reminded them and after several of these emails they eventually said, “Oh we’ll tell you by next week” – they never did. There was never a response. Journalists and anyone with an interest in unpicking what’s going on are unlikely to ever get to Nauru without a very explicit request from the Australian Government.

*Soon after this interview was conducted, it was revealed that Channel Nine’s tabloid program ‘A Current Affair’ had been granted exclusive access as the first camera crew the Nauruan government has permitted inside the offshore detention centre. The station has asked us to be prepared to be ”stunned”. The whole thing is bollocks. The story airs at 7:00pm tonight. 

And that eight thousand dollars, is it returned?

Well I think most media outlets can probably afford to foot the money – but if it’s a capricious decision then you lose the whole lot. Most media organisations wouldn’t be willing to keep doing that. Maybe reducing it to a more sensible level would be important – but in the end actually getting an ‘okay’ is more important than a cost.

How do you explain the prevailing hostility towards foreigners, given our recent history and – now pretty much trashed – reputation as a humanitarian country, which values inclusivity and diversity as core values?   

It’s actually very interesting when you look at the data – what it doesn’t show is that Australians are universally opposed to refugees and asylum seekers. ‘Boat people’ are a very specific group towards whom considerable hostility is directed. The Scanlon-Monash Index that Andrew Marcus puts together regularly finds over successive surveys that the majority of Australians do not approve of asylum seekers being indefinitely detained on offshore islands. They don’t. They are not particularly keen on people coming over here without ‘prior notice’ – but then, they don’t seem to mind them coming in aeroplanes without prior notice.

So there are some weird, ancient sources of this hostility towards asylum seekers’ mode of arrival, and I don’t think it would take too much to push people towards a more nuanced position.

A humanitarian impulse, an empathic response – these are all possible. But they require political leadership, and this is sadly lacking in the major political parties at the moment. We’re told “the pragmatic response” – something I heard from one of the Labor people this morning – which is to keep the detention centres open. There’s nothing pragmatic about it.

Since the time of writing, have there been any developments regarding the fate of the 267 asylum seekers in Australia seeking medical attention?

No, it’s been very quiet since the election was called. We’re watching very closely, of course, as are others to see what’s happening. Most of them are either still in detention or in the community awaiting decisions. If the government, and for that matter the opposition, had any brains at all they would leave them in the community and assess their request for asylum, then let them get on with their lives. Then we could start bringing people from those two hellholes in the same way.

I know someone on Nauru (and I’ll say no more than that because it might identify the person) is aware that over half the children that have been examined there are suffering from sufficiently severe psychological illness that they would require psychiatric care. That is a lot of children.

Working in psychology and having that history of expertise, it must be particularly frustrating for you to see these effects play out – to realise that hundreds of people are deteriorating as a direct result of Australia’s position on asylum.

Indefinite detention puts individuals in a position where they can’t leave. This is the case even when you have the claim that the centres are open and the refugees are free to live in the community. They’re not secure in any kind of status or living situation on the island besides, as the most the Nauruan government has indicated they can stay is ten years.

Nauru is not a multicultural society; it is a largely hostile environment to foreigners. These are not people accustomed to having other religious and ethnic groups in their midst. They are finding it difficult to make such dramatic shifts, and of course they are making it difficult for the people who are there. It is on every front: discrimination, hostility, abuse, indefinite detention, uncertainty… It’s a toxic mix for any human being, and to me, it is surprising that more refugees and asylum seekers haven’t attempted suicide.

It has been about fifteen years since offshore detention was first introduced by the Australian government, when John Howard brought in the Pacific Solution. For refugees, activists and many concerned citizens besides, there is a lot of frustration and despair going around. It seems that no matter what happens – asylum seekers can set themselves alight, we can learn of rape under our name, we can protest endlessly – but politicians on both sides of parliament refuse to budge. How do we overcome this despair, and how do we find hope?  

I think it’s a case of people doing what they can, where they can. For instance when you vote: think about the policies of the people you’re voting for. There is also working with other groups, together – I think you’ll find there’s more going on behind the scenes in the lead-up to this election than you might think.

But whatever the election results bring, this won’t be the end of the story. I don’t think there’s anything to be done except to persist – to beg the leadership to adopt a position which is closer to the Australian view. Do what the Australian people want! It is a disgrace that Australian’s political class do not get sufficient resources at their disposal to come up with another solution.

What can students do to take a more direct role in this issue?

I think in the case of the people on Manus Island and Nauru, it is about awareness-raising. Some people are able to more directly assist them by talking with them regularly; that takes a very particular kind of person, I have to say. It’s tough work. More effort into advocacy and direct contact with decision-makers are some of the best things that can be done – everyone can make their views known by whatever means. I know people who use their Facebook pages to constantly reflect on these matters. Not to the extent that they drive their friends away – but just inserting this information wherever they can – whether this is on Twitter, in conversations, through sending emails and letters to politicians. There are various ways of raising resources as well – GetUp does some work for instance.

As you say, everyone has worked hard on this, and so far has not seen any kind of result we would’ve wanted. But I don’t think that means we should stop. It’s one of those things you’ve just got to keep doing.

Interview by Kate Prendergast & Hayden Dalziel

You can download the full report ‘Protection Denied, Abuse Condoned: Women on Nauru at Risk’ here.

You can also follow ‘Australian Women in Support of Women on Nauru’ on Facebook.