SYDNEY - An immigration camp on the Pacific island of Nauru holding asylum-seekers turned away by Australia has seen rape and other abuse, according to submissions to an Australian inquiry which opened hearings Tuesday.
Asylum-seekers on the island live in mouldy tents and have little privacy, the Senate inquiry's first public hearing was told, while a doctor who assessed children there said living conditions were unsafe and put vulnerable women and children at "considerable" risk.
Australia refuses to accept asylum-seekers arriving by boat, instead sending them to camps on Nauru and Papua New Guinea for resettlement, despite strong criticism from rights groups.
But the inquiry was dismissed as a "stunt" by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton who said the government ordered a review into Nauru last year and has since addressed many issues.
David Isaacs, the doctor, wrote in his submission that guards were able to enter tents "unannounced any time" and one woman told him she had been raped when she went to the toilet - up to 120 metres away from some tents - at night.
"She told me that since the rape, one guard had offered her extra shower time in return for sexual favours," stated the doctor, adding that a different guard had offered the woman marijuana in return for sex.
The independent Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said it had extensive dealings with people transferred to Australia from Nauru for medical treatment and many were traumatised.
"Parents tell us that their children are incontinent and talk in their sleep constantly," its submission said. "They say that the children have nightmares and refuse to sleep alone."
Yet another submission, from the Immigration Advice and Rights Centre, revealed that a boy had begun to self-harm and talk about suicide and his mother believed he had been sexually assaulted.
Govt doing everything it can
Dutton said the hearing, chaired by the opposition Labor Party and Greens, comes less than two months after the release of the government-commissioned Moss report into the Nauru centre.
Canberra has accepted all the recommendations from that report, which found that many detainees were anxious about their personal safety and that assaults were under-reported.
Last year staff at the immigration camp claimed the Australian government was aware of the alleged sexual abuse of women and children asylum seekers on the Pacific island outpost for more than a year, but had failed to act.
Dutton had responded by saying his predecessor was only made aware of the allegations in late 2014, and had then ordered a review.
Dutton said now the government was working with Nauru and service providers to improve conditions, and had set up a panel to provide independent advice on child protection in immigration detention.
The government had also sent extra police to Nauru, he said.
The minister said the Nauru detention centre was established by the former Labor government and it was under their watch that a riot in July 2013 destroyed a large section of the facility.
"Services and safeguards are significantly better now than the rushed temporary arrangements that were initially put in place under Labor when Nauru Regional Processing Centre was opened," he added.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the government was doing everything it could to help Nauru and Papua New Guinea run good centres.
"In the end it is the responsibility of the governments of Nauru and PNG to maintain order in these centres, to ensure that the ordinary law of the land is upheld, to ensure that basic human decency applies here as it should apply everywhere," he said.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees last year slammed the facilities on PNG and Nauru, saying they failed to meet international standards and amounted to arbitrary detention.