The Number of Ways in Which Australia Has Failed Female Refugees Is Staggering

We need to decide if we're actually going to do something about systemic violence against women, or just act like it.
October 16, 2015, 8:00pm

A few weeks ago, the government of the island nation of Nauru, where we send many of the refugees who have attempted to come to Australia, announced that the detention center would now become an "open center." Refugees would no longer be confined to the fenced camp and could walk about the island at will, 24 hours a day.

It was an announcement clearly designed to stem the increasing tide of criticisms the country was receiving; the idea that having free access to the island was similar enough to being a free citizen in a country, with only the physical fences removed.

It would be of little comfort to "Najima" (not her real name), who was walking freely on the island when she was allegedly attacked by two men who dragged her into the bushes and beat and raped her.

Read from VICE Magazine: Island Wide Shut

Najima comes from Somalia, a place that our own Government advises us "not to travel to any part" because of "the ongoing very high threat of terrorist attack and kidnapping, and dangerous levels of violent crime." "If you are in Somalia," the travel advisory website tells us, "we strongly urge you to leave if it is safe to do so."

The advice was apparently just meant for Australians, because when Najima tried, she was refused asylum and shipped off to Nauru.

If our system, as well as our responsibilities towards those seeking asylum, had failed Najima at that point, what happened next was on a whole new level.

Najima called the police, who took four hours to arrive. Four hours. If you're thinking that Nauru is probably a big place, then prepare for a surprise: the whole island is a little over eight square miles. According to Google Maps, if you started at any point on the Nauru coast and walked on foot around the circumference of the island, taking the longest possible route to end up at the place you'd just left, it would take 3 hours and 24 minutes. This is how small Nauru is.

When the police eventually turned up, they said they couldn't find the cave that Najima claimed she had been dragged to. Their skepticism was exacerbated by the fact that they found no evidence of her clothes being ripped, and no visible cuts or abrasions. A subsequent medical examination did not find any evidence of rape.

Perhaps that's a totally reasonable and objectively sound conclusion based on solid police work, or perhaps the police force is corrupt and does whatever the government tells them to do. That's not me saying that, that's just about anyone who's had any dealings with them, including the aptly-named Peter Law, a former magistrate of Nauru, who claimed this when talking to Radio National last month.

But Nauru's government nevertheless sprung into action. And that action was to have their Australian public relations agency, Mercer PR, put out a press release explaining that there was insufficient evidence of rape to continue with the investigation. Hands dusted, they apparently thought this would put an end to the controversy. Except of course, that the press release for some reason included Najima's real name.

The naming of victims publicly is unheard of, at least in Australia, and Mercer was quick to defer blame to the Nauru government for approving the text. "We simply represent the government," Mercer told the Guardian. "We do communications for them. I can't answer any more."

This is not atypical of the Nauru Government. Here's what they had to say: "The government of Nauru says refugees in the country are in no physical danger and stories of locals attacking them are largely fabricated to further political agendas and influence the Australian government." We wonder what the family of Nazanin thinks of that.

If your mouth is still hanging open from Nauru's statement, prepare for total jaw dislocation, because the government is considering charging Najima for making a false claim.

There may be some profoundly callous people out there who think that she should have simply stayed within the safety of the detention center. If that's your solution, then it turns out this wouldn't have been much better.

Another woman in the center has told of how a male guard turned the water in her shower block off, saying he'd only turn it back on if she showed him her body. Another guard tried to enter the shower, only leaving when she screamed. Another time, she was followed by a guard openly masturbating in front of her.

If the Australian government is concerned by these revelations, they've sure kept quiet. That's the advantage and point of off-shore processing: it's always someone else's problem.

Except it's not. Much has been made these past weeks of the pregnant woman pleading to come to Australia for an abortion. The pregnancy was the result of a rape that had occurred on Nauru, and Nauru forbids abortions unless the mother's life is at risk, the pregnancy is under 12 weeks, and there is written approval from two physicians as well as the woman's spouse.

The woman has finally been brought to Australia for the procedure, but only after a concerted and very public campaign that became difficult to ignore. But we've certainly been trying.

Australia's Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has said that the government will no longer "be taken for mugs."

Back in July, the government was bothered by the fact that detainees were launching legal claims to prevent their return to Nauru and Manus. So they put a rule in place ensuring that anyone requiring overseas medical treatment would be taken to Papua New Guinea instead.

Australia's Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has said that the government will no longer "be taken for mugs." "The racket that's been going on here is that people at the margins come to Australia from Nauru," he continued, in an apparent determination to be the primary thing that future generations will be forced to apologize for in 20 years or 12 months or on Tuesday.

As Malcolm Turnbull talks a big game in ending violence against women, and Australia refuses visas for performers with histories of domestic violence, we need to decide if we're actually going to do something about systemic violence against women, or just act like it. Because we clearly need a consistent approach, and if we're not going to have one, we need to explain why some women deserve justice and others do not.

As Australia accepts asylum seekers from Syria and sends others from Syria off-shore for using people smugglers to get here, it is difficult to ignore that Australia has adopted a cruel and unusual approach to justice for women that is based entirely on the need to "stop the boats," the catchphrase and election campaign of a man who is no longer leader.

The number of ways in which we have failed and continue to fail women who have escaped their war-ravaged homelands, only to find themselves at the mercy of the people who are supposed to care for them, is staggering. And it shows no sign of getting even a little better.

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