The Forgotten Women on Nauru

By Emily Treeby

Last month, Federal Liberal MP Russel Broadbent endorsed in parliament the message of the #BringThemHere campaign. The Victorian moderate broke ranks with government policy and called for refugees in offshore detention to be resettled permanently in Australia. The removal of the people subjected to Australia’s offshore processing regime from Nauru and Manus Island to Australia is particularly urgent in relation to women refugees who have been resettled on Nauru.

Australia’s deterrent-based asylum seeker policy

Consecutive federal governments have consistently upheld a punitive promise to never allow the people held in offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island to be settled in Australia. It is this promise, which forms part of Australia’s wider deterrent-based policy, that has subjected women refugees held offshore to a life of constant fear, violence and abuse.

The human rights abuses occurring inside the offshore processing centres have been unveiled by The Nauru Files, amongst other reports and inquiries. There is well-documented evidence that gender-based violence, such as rape, sexual assault and indecent assault, perpetrated by local Nauruan men and security staff, is systemic within the centres.  Unfortunately, the same reality is experienced by women living outside the camps once resettled within the Nauruan community.

Approximately 1,200 refugees, equating to roughly one-tenth of Nauru’s population, reside on the twenty-one square kilometre island, both within the Nauruan community and in the processing centre under ‘open centre’ arrangements. Deep tensions exist between the refugee community and local Nauruan community, with Nauruan locals demonstrating their antagonism towards the refugees through bullying, intimidation and violence.

Violence against Women on Nauru 

Women on Nauru are disproportionately vulnerable to gender-based violence, with reports of women having been raped, bashed and even burnt. The resettlement infrastructure for single refugee women consists of isolated cabins along bush tracks, away from well-populated areas. The doors have flimsy latches and are without locks. Consequently, this has left these women constantly unsafe; open to attacks and assault by local men.

(Photo Credit: Protection Denied, Abuse Condoned: Women on Nauru at Risk (report), by Australian Women in Support of Women on Nauru.)







Women have been exploited and abducted while waiting at local bus stops. Sophie, a young woman released to live in the community on Nauru in April 2015, was raped by two men while waiting for a bus. In March 2016, another young woman resettled on Nauru was thrown into the back of a car, raped, then thrown out of the car in the middle of nowhere. Yet another, Sarah, was waiting at the supermarket bus stop when offered a lift by a Nauruan man. She was then driven to the man’s house, hit across the face, threatened with death and sexually assaulted.

Beth, another young refugee woman living on Nauru, was drugged after accepting a drink from local men. She was dragged into bushes by a group of men and raped, then doused in fuel and set alight. As a result of the rape, Beth became pregnant – and for personal reasons, was terribly conflicted with the thought of terminating her pregnancy. She decided to go through with procedure, given the circumstances, and was flown to Australia for the termination. Experiencing significant psychological trauma since the rape, compounded by her decision to terminate her pregnancy, Beth attempted suicide while in a Brisbane hospital. It is beyond appalling that, despite the series of extremely traumatic events Beth suffered, the Australian Government returned Beth to Nauru, where she is forced to live on an island the size of Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport in a community where her attacker roams free.

In 2015, a 23-year-old Somali woman named Abyan was also raped on Nauru. After weeks of procrastination from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Abyan was transferred to Australia for an abortion; an illegal procedure on Nauru. After requesting more time before undergoing the procedure, Abyan was returned to Nauru. It was later revealed that the Australian Government feared Abyan would seek a legal injunction preventing her return to Nauru and so Abyan was returned as a ‘preventative measure’.

It is a shameful indictment on Australia that women who have fled persecution in their home countries are left unprotected and subjected to sexual violence as a direct result of Australian government policy.

Double cictimisation and gender-based violence

However, these cases of repeated sexual violence offences on the tiny island are not surprising – Nauru has had ongoing problems surrounding gender-based violence for decades. The status of women has eroded alongside the deterioration of the country’s economy, and structural discrimination against women is rooted in Nauruan society. In a 2014 Report, more than half of Nauruan women surveyed had experienced physical or sexual violence – or both – at least once in their lifetime.

In addition, it is clear that policing and prosecution of gender-based crimes are inadequate.  Refugees and asylum seekers have reported that Nauruan police ignore their complaints and discourage them from filing reports. When victims have filed reports and could identify their attackers, it has been reported that police have failed to investigate or apprehend perpetrators.  No Nauruan has been charged or investigated for a gender-based crime against refugee women. Indeed, Nauru’s former Chief Minister testified before an Australian Senate Select Committee in July 2015 that there is a serious question about the lack of police independence in investigations, particularly regarding allegations of offences committed by Nauruans against non-Nauruans.

As a result of the Nauru government’s contractual requirement of confidentiality to the Australian government,  violence is often obscured due to the Nauruan government and Australian government’s deliberate policy position that unwanted publicity be suppressed.

The experience of many women on Nauru is what the UN refers to as ‘double victimisation.’ First, there is the trauma of the rape or sexual assault, which is then compounded by the failure or refusal of authorities to take effective action or to provide adequate protection. Women on Nauru are left exposed, vulnerable and insecure in an environment where intimidation and fear dominate.

Nauru is no place for women resettled as refugees. Nothing is more telling of the dire situation in which these women find themselves than their requests to immigration authorities to be returned to the camp, despite falling victim to physical and sexual violence perpetrated by security staff whilst previously detained.

The way forward

The men, women and children on Nauru need strong communities to help them rebuild their lives after years of being held in limbo by the Australian government. A community confronted with major economic and political problems, plagued with gender-based violence and facing an increasing risk of natural disaster as a consequence of climate change, does not have the capacity to take on the complex responsibilities required to provide adequate services for deeply traumatised individuals and to keep a newly resettled population free from violence. These demands on the state would strain even the most well-resourced and ethical government.

Nauru and Australia are jointly responsible under international law for the human rights violations against refugees living on Nauru. Despite the fact that Australia entirely finances and controls the offshore operations on Nauru, Nauru is jointly liable for the violations that occur on its territory. Therefore, both Australia and Nauru have responsibility in ensuring women are effectively protected from harm perpetrated by non-state actors.

Given the documented failings of the Nauru police and justice system in protecting women from violence, it is clear that removal from Nauru to Australia is the only effective response. We need to #EvacuateNow Nauru and Manus Island and #BringThemHere.



Emily Treeby is currently studying a Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Arts degree at La Trobe University. Emily is undertaking an internship with Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) and is currently completing a research project for the ALHR Refugee Sub-Committee.


La Trobe Academic