December 31, 2014 | the guardian
Refugees on Nauru say they have pleaded with Australian immigration authorities to return them to detention centres because of violence and harassment from some members of the local population.
Some women living in camps for refugees say they sleep wearing jeans because they are afraid of being raped by local men.
The release of hundreds of refugees since May has caused turmoil in the tiny Pacific nation. Many Nauruans support the refugees and treat them with kindness. But a section of the community has declared its deep antagonism toward the new arrivals.
An Iranian who asked to remain anonymous said refugees lived under constant threat of physical and verbal abuse.
“They attack the refugees,” he said. “You are walking in the street, they say ‘fuck you, go back to your camp’. They throw rocks. They spit at you. This is normal.”
Earlier this month refugees on Nauru told Guardian Australia of physical bullying in schools and regular attacks on the streets.
Australia’s immigration department has confirmed that assaults have occurred. Refugees said violent crimes were committed with impunity and there was no point complaining to police. In some cases doing so even led to reprisals, they said.
In Anibare, one of four open camps that house those who have been granted asylum, Guardian Australia spoke to a group of Somali women who escaped their country alone. Without the protection of men they feel especially vulnerable.
Hawo (names have been changed to protect identities) said she was attacked by local men twice in two days last week.
On Wednesday a passing motorcyclist swung his arm at her and knocked her down in the road, she said. The next day a different man cornered her outside the supermarket. She said he grabbed her in a bear hug and tried to kiss her. She thought she was going to be raped and screamed for help, causing her assailant to run away.
Even the camps are unsafe. The women said local men came around the back of their camp at night and knocked on their windows. They sleep in their jeans, fearing prospective rapists.
Majma said she was beaten two weeks ago by a security guard employed to protect residents. Following a dispute over a fridge he broke into her room, knocking her to the floor and punching her repeatedly in the chest, she said.
She said the incident was witnessed by workers from Save the Children, who helped her to make reports to Australian immigration authorities and the local police.
The guard is still working at the camp. Majma said he told her she “did not deserve” to have things in her room fixed because she had complained to the police.
She said the guard told her “even if you complain, this is our home country, this is Nauru. You’ll just go back on the boat you came with.”
A third woman, Annisa, said the refugees felt so threatened they had asked Australian immigration authorities to put them back into detention. She said she had made the request despite suffering both physical and sexual abuse at the hands of guards while in detention.
“I expressed my fear to the immigration that I don’t feel safe in Nauru. There’s no way. Let me stay in the camp, because the camp at least is better than outside. They said: ‘No. The camp is for asylum seekers, you’ll stay [in Nauru for] five years,’” she said.
Save the Children is contracted by the Australian government to provide social services to refugees. A spokeswoman for the charity declined to comment on individual cases, but said: “There remains significant work to be done to allow refugees to integrate into the Nauruan community in a safe and harmonious way, and we urge the governments of Nauru and Australia to continue to make this an urgent priority.
“Ultimately, Save the Children believes that Nauru is not a sustainable, long-term option for the resettlement of humanitarian refugees.”
The immigration department declined to comment on individual cases, but said the government still considered Nauru a viable place to resettle refugees.
A spokesman for the department said: “Australia remains committed to the processing and settlement arrangements in place in Nauru, and to working with the government of Nauru to help it realise the enduring social and economic benefits of becoming a refugee settlement country.”
He said police in Nauru had been pursuing perpetrators of violent crimes: “Refugees are encouraged to report any incidents or concerns to the police, who have been active in investigating those incidents which have occurred and have laid charges where appropriate.”
On Boxing Day two Iranian men were taken to hospital after an alleged assault by locals near the Nibok camp.
Mahmood Khalili later told Guardian Australia he had been fishing with his friend Medhi Ghasemi when two Nauruan men approached them and asked for a cigarette.
When Khalili reached into his pocket he was kicked in the chest and fell off the harbour wall, he said. He said he fell more than two metres on to rocks before rolling into the water.
The men said when Ghasemi protested, he was also kicked off the edge into the sea. Powerful waves then threw the men against the rocks as they tried to scramble back to shore, they said.
“We swim and we come near the rocks,” Khalili said. “Medhi’s hand was damaged because he does not swim very well. Last night we were lucky nobody died.”
Both were taken by police to the local hospital. They suffered heavy bruising and scratches. Pain from a suspected broken rib caused Khalili to speak with difficulty.
He said their fishing bags were stolen, containing money, phones and fishing gear. The two men filed a police report at the hospital, but Khalili said he was hesitant to pursue the matter further.
“I’m afraid to write a complaint to police because a friend [who was attacked previously] complained and was harassed [by police],” he said.
Refugees are told complaints should be made through their immigration case worker. Khalili’s son said they had called the case workers for three days without getting a response.
Violence has become so common in Nauru that messages have been posted in the camps, apparently by Save The Children staff, alerting refugees about potentially dangerous days.
Last month, refugees were warned to stay indoors on the night of the local Australian rules grand final.
“…there will be excessive drinking of alcohol by members of the community. Please be cautious travelling around Nauru on Saturday and stay at home on Saturday night,” the message said.
The Nauruan government did not respond to a request for comment on the police response to complaints and the safety of refugees on the island.