• Helen Davidson

UN tells Nauru to take urgent action to investigate child abuse

UN committee also criticises restrictions imposed on international NGOs and journalists from looking into children’s rights and protection on the island.

Silhouettes of children set up last month on the front lawns of Parliament House, Canberra to represent asylum seeker children held on Nauru. Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian

The Nauruan government must take “immediate action” to investigate all allegations of mistreatment, abuse and sexual assault against refugee and asylum-seeker children, the United Nations has said in a report card on the Pacific island nation.

The report follows a UN committee on the rights of the child hearing, which reviewed the state of children’s rights in Nauru. Many of its findings, or concluding observations, relate to the refugee and asylum-seeker children held or hosted on the island as part of its agreement with Australia to process boat arrivals.

The committee concluded that the Nauruan government had accepted asylum-seeking and refugee children from Australia “without taking their best interests into account”.

The memorandum of understanding between the two countries also failed in this respect, it said.

The UN committee also criticised the restrictions on civil society groups and media, and expressed concern that some international organisations had faced intimidation.

Earlier this year, the Guardian revealed thousands of leaked documents from inside the Nauru processing centre, which detailed widespread trauma and abuse among detainees, including children.

The findings were dismissed by the Australian and Nauruan governments as being allegations and historical, despite the reports containing first-hand accounts from employees, up until October 2015.

On Friday, the UN committee called on the Nauruan government to “take immediate action to independently investigate all allegations of ill-treatment, abuse and sexual assault” against asylum seeking and refugee children, and Nauruan children.

It noted the efforts made by Nauru to develop a child protection system, but expressed concern at the limited capacity of the police force to investigate allegations of sexual assault and violence against children.

The committee was also concerned about the “inhuman and degrading treatment, including physical, psychological and sexual abuse, against asylum seeking and refugee children living in the Regional Processing Centres”, and reports of intimidation and violence against people living in the community.

It criticised the lack of assistance for the recovery of children who “experienced trauma prior to their arrival in Nauru and the subsequent impact of prolonged periods of living in detention-like conditions, which has resulted in many cases of attempted suicide, self-immolation, acts of self-harm and depression”.

It called for compulsory training and mandatory reporting requirements for all professionals working with children, and immediate protection, prevention and rehabilitation measures. Separately, it urged the creation of a national database of domestic violence against children, and thorough assessment of the extent, causes, and nature of the violence in order to develop effective prevention and protection programs.

It noted that despite recent law reform, corporal punishment continued to be widely socially accepted, and was still used in detention-like settings such as the regional processing centre.

The committee expressed serious concern that international organisations and journalists had been restricted from conducting research relating to children’s rights, and that there had been reports of international organisations being subjected to intimidation. It recommended that the Nauruan government involve civil society groups in policy, and build “an environment of trust and cooperation” with NGOs and journalists.

The Nauruan government has increasingly sought to prevent any potential critics from entering the country.

Journalists are now charged a US$8,000 (A$10,500) non-refundable visa application fee, and only two Australian journalists have since been granted access. In September, it refused to allow some members of a Danish political delegation, including members of parliament, who had hoped to visit the processing centre as part of a fact-finding mission on Australia’s immigration policy.

Last month, the Nauruan president, Baron Waqa, told the United Nations summit on refugees and migrants that the processing system gave people protection while also undermining the business model of people smugglers.

Waqa said that while “implementation of this model is not without its issues”, it had a robust and fair determination system, and complied with UNHCR guidance.

The UN committee welcomed the recent ratification by Nauru of the Optional Protocol of the Convention against Torture, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, as well as key pieces of law reform and policy.

However, it was concerned about stalled or minimal efforts at the implementation into domestic law and regulations.

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