By: Dr Melanie Baak
Convenor UniSA Refugee and Migration Research Network 
University of South Australia 

Melanie.Baak (at)

The Nauru Files, comprising more than 2,000 leaked documents from inside the Australian offshore immigration processing centre in Nauru, have caused a stir. Since their release by The Guardian on Wednesday, media of all types have been abuzz with calls to do something – from calls for a Royal Commission, to calls for marches, rallies and protests. What we need most is a call for immediate change to government policy. This call can only come from the Australian people. The problem is, the Australian people have been so convinced by the strategic dehumanisation of asylum seekers undertaken by the Australian Government and media over the past 15 years, that according to polls undertaken during the 2016 federal election 42% of voters agree with the continued ‘offshore processing’ of asylum seekers. Words and phrases like ‘illegal maritime arrivals’, ‘boat people’, ‘terrorists’, ‘detainees’, ‘people smugglers’, ‘illegals’ have filled the discussions about people who attempt to seek asylum in Australia. This language has enabled the dehumanisation of people who seek asylum to a point where almost half of the Australian population supported the expenditure of over $1 billion in a one year period to lock up approximately 1500 people who have committed no crime.

Nauru provides home to one of Australia’s ‘offshore processing’ centres that are entirely the responsibility of the Australian Government. People, who have risked everything to attempt to travel to Australia to seek asylum from war, political and other forms of persecution are locked up and warehoused in indefinite detention with no hope for resettlement in Australia, and little hope for the future. This is despite approximately 77% of those whose asylum claims have been processed being recognised as legitimate refugees. For many years now, research has time and again demonstrated the long-term impacts of detention on people seeking asylum. There is compelling evidence from across the world that demonstrates the detrimental impact of detention on the mental and physical health of children and adults. Despite the known and documented impact of detention, it continues as Australia’s policy and practice towards those people who seek asylum.

Perhaps one of the most concerning aspects of Australia’s current ‘offshore processing’ facilities is the secrecy around them. Journalists are virtually forbidden entry to Nauru with media visas $8,000 per application for those who can get them. The Australian Border Force Act passed by the Australian Government last year enables the prosecution and possible imprisonment of any offshore detention staff member who speaks out about conditions in the centres on Nauru and Manus. This is the reason why the leak of the ‘Nauru Files’ has caused such a stir.

The Nauru Files suddenly gives the Australian public access to reports, notes and documents that illustrate the extent of the abuses that the Australian Government is enabling and perpetuating. As a country, as tax-paying citizens, are we ok with a system that has resulted in seven reports of sexual assault of children, 59 reports of assault on children, 30 incidences of self-harm involving children and 159 reports of threatened self-harm involving children - all in 26 months? The Nauru Files provide hard-evidence of something that Australia and the world has known about for a long time. But they also provide startling evidence of the scale and staggering incidence rates of the self-harm, assault and abuse that is being experienced. The data is there, the evidence is there, and the outcomes have been proven with decades of research. What the Nauru Files may enable, through the detailing of the documented horrendous experiences of people seeking asylum, is compassion from the Australian public. And through compassion it may be possible to overcome the decades of considered dehumanisation that have enabled the detention to continue.  

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