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Nauru defends refugee policies after abuse allegations surface

Representatives from the tiny island nation of Nauru said they are improving conditions at their refugee center after reports of alleged sexual abuse against child refugees surfaced in recent weeks.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child grilled representatives from Nauru for a total of nine hours on Tuesday and Wednesday during the group’s meeting in Geneva.

Nauru houses one of two offshore detention facilities — the other is on Manus island, also in the Pacific Ocean — where people seeking asylum in Australia are held. The refugees come from places such as Iran, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

Nauru’s refugee detention facility has come under increased scrutiny from the international community following the leak of over 2,000 incident reports alleging assault, sexual abuse and poor living conditions.

Member of the Nauruan Parliament, Charmaine Scotty, who led the delegation, said in her opening statement, “We are doing the best we can given the limited resources available to us.”

The delegation touted its new law enforcing the protection of children as well as its partnership with UNICEF to a review its child protection system. Scotty said the island had also put in place a 24-hour hotline for victims to report abuse.

But over the two-day session, U.N. leaders pressed officials on child sexual abuse allegations, truancy rates among refugee children, and hostility toward journalists. During the questioning, Scotty became, at times, emotional defending her country and its people.

At one point, Scotty spurned allegations that refugee children had drowned in Nauru waters. Only one adult had drowned off the island, she said, because the refugee “did not understand that the tide was too strong.”

On the concern that journalists have been blocked from the camps, Samoa representative Clarence Nelson pointed out that the non-refundable visa fee for journalists has risen from $200 to $8,000.

Scotty responded that Nauru raised its visa fees for journalists because their negative reporting was making “hard work extra hard” to run the facility when the community was less accepting of refugees.

She also claimed visiting reporters behaved like “espionage secret agents,” lying on their forms about being tourists.

Amnesty International’s Anna Neistat, one of few journalists to witness the conditions on Nauru, told the PBS NewsHour last month the island detention facility is a product of “one of the most cynical refugee policies I’ve ever seen.”

Neistat said that refugees suffered “deliberate, systematic abuse” resulting in psychological trauma evidenced by the high rate of self-harm and attempted suicide.

Some people are putting part of the blame on Australia. The Australian government does not accept any refugees who travel by boat, so those who attempt the journey are detained at the offshore processing facility on Nauru, about 2,800 miles off the coast of Australia.

Australia’s immigration minster Thursday signaled a possible change to the controversial refugee policy by saying he would consider having Nauru refugees re-routed to New Zealand. But a New Zealand official said his government has no plans to enter into such an agreement.

Nauru’s delegation was the first to appear before the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, which plans to question seven other countries over the next two weeks.

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