Federal Politics

Water shortages, toilet restrictions and constant fear: Details about life on Nauru revealed

A former employee at the Nauru detention centre has lifted the lid on conditions within the compound, including limited access to toilets and poor welfare for bullied men, as pressure mounts on the Turnbull government not to return asylum seekers to the isolated island.

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Senate slanging match

Senators don't hold back during an estimates hearing when discussing the treatment of asylum seekers in offshore detention.

The rare disclosure from within the ranks of Transfield, recently renamed Broadspectrum, follows the government's decision to extend by a year the company's contract to provide welfare and security in Australian-funded detention centres at Nauru and Manus Island.

The claims came as Nationals senator Barry O'Sullivan suggested at a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday that the exacerbation of trauma asylum seekers experience at Nauru is no different to that caused by living in the Australian suburbs. The fiery hearing deteriorated into a slanging match in which Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young called Senator O'Sullivan a "pig" after he interrupted her questioning.

Attorney-General George Brandis and Australian Human Rights Commission president Professor Gillian Triggs during the ...
Attorney-General George Brandis and Australian Human Rights Commission president Professor Gillian Triggs during the estimates hearing on Tuesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is weathering sustained calls to back down from plans to return 267 asylum seekers and refugees, including about 90 children, to Nauru.

In written evidence presented to a Senate inquiry into the Nauru centre, the former Transfield case manager, who filled the role until February last year, said medical facilities were "inadequate" and living conditions poor.


The whistleblower, who worked with single adult men, said they lived in tents that were hot, overcrowded, mouldy and infested with mice.

"Water shortages were common, resulting in restrictions on toilets and shower facilities," the former worker said.

Senators Barry O'Sullivan and Ian Macdonald during the hearing.
Senators Barry O'Sullivan and Ian Macdonald during the hearing. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The detention centre failed to provide privacy and personal space and "vulnerable men who experienced bullying or harassment by other asylum seekers" were forced to live among their antagonists after just a few days' respite. Asylum seekers endured long waits for medical and dental treatment and waited hours for a bus to travel to the clinic. It meant some missed their appointments or lost access to an interpreter.

The Nauru hospital, which the government says is receiving a $26 million upgrade, also lacked the facilities to treat serious medical conditions, the submission said.

A picture of Nauru hospital supplied by an asylum seeker.
A picture of Nauru hospital supplied by an asylum seeker. 

"The poor living conditions and confinement of detention contributed to asylum seekers' mental health concerns," it said, citing hunger strikes and suicide attempts.

The evidence was echoed by Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs, who told an estimates hearing on Tuesday that Nauru detainees had access to a washing machine barely once a month during water shortages, and lived in constant fear of being physically and sexually assaulted, particularly outside the centre.

Senator O'Sullivan suggested that for traumatised asylum seekers, living in Nauru was akin to the stress of settling in the Australian community and having to adjust to a new language and culture and find work.

"Whether they go left to Nauru or right to ... a suburb of my community, I'm saying the exacerbation of their stress continues," he said. Professor Triggs rejected the assertion.

A spokesman for the the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said it would not comment on the anonymous claims, but would be making its own submission to the inquiry in due course.

"However, significant improvements have been made to accommodation and medical facilities at the Nauru RPC since February 2015," the spokesman said.

Broadspectrum had not responded to request for comment at the time of publication.

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