DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're about to hear a firsthand account of the abuse of refugees. These refugees sought asylum in Australia. Australia parks its refugees on a distant Pacific Island, which is a controversial way to keep them out. And that's only the start of their trouble as we heard recently on MORNING EDITION when our colleague Steve Inskeep looked into the subject.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: On this program, we discussed allegations that the refugees suffer abuse. And then we got an email. Viktoria Vibhakar sent it. She had been on that island, which is called Nauru. And in a talk via Skype, she added to what we know. In 2013, she was hired to work on the island. Save the Children Australia put her on a plane and set her over there to help kids.
VIKTORIA VIBHAKAR: But one of the first things I got - which was most striking - was a deed of confidentiality, which was a couple of pages. And it basically said, you cannot say anything about what goes on in this facility. And if you do, you are liable for two years in jail for each disclosure.
INSKEEP: Australia did not want a lot of attention paid to its refugees on that distant island. This is Vibhakar's story of what happened in that secrecy. She spent almost a year coming and going from Nauru. Her job was to assist asylum-seekers and refugees, including children who said they were suffering abuse.
How did you go about that?
VIBHAKAR: In the beginning, we'd go out to the detention facility, which is basically a place of barren rock - phosphate rock with jagged pinnacles, with little natural vegetation and very bright light because the glare of the sun is incredibly oppressive. The asylum-seekers were housed in vinyl tents. And we'd go and meet with them and ask them how they were doing. And, Steve, as time went on, I felt like my job was just convincing people to stay alive.
INSKEEP: What was the first case that came to your attention that made you think something is seriously wrong here?
VIBHAKAR: Three days into my first rotation on Nauru, there was an adolescent boy who had been sexually assaulted. The child was living in fear of the sexual assaults being repeated, not just to him but to his mother who was living without a partner in the detention facility.
INSKEEP: Who was the alleged abuser according to the victims?
VIBHAKAR: So it was an employee who was a cleaner. And he actually admitted to the sexual assault. And while the security guards were making note of the sexual assault and taking the boy's report, the person who sexually assaulted the young boy continued to mock him. And see, there was a complete lack of privacy in this detention facility. So here is a boy having to report a sexual assault and is doing it in the open air in front of guards while the abuser is standing there mocking him.
And see, what was really amazing to me is there was a Save The Children manager there. And she told me, at the time, that this person was going to be moved to a different detention facility within Nauru but that he wasn't going to be fired. And she said this just as a matter of - this was just normal. You have to accept it. This is just the way it is.
INSKEEP: What were you supposed to do when you were told of abuse?
VIBHAKAR: We were supposed to fill out an incident report immediately. But see, there was no child protection agency in Nauru, so there's no statutory child protection function. And the biggest issue about children and their safety was that we were never allowed to remove them from harm. So the Australian government never gave Save The Children Australia the authority to remove children if they felt that they were unsafe. Reporting abuse is not adequate if the child is still subjected to further abuse. But this was the case in Nauru.
INSKEEP: Did anyone have the authority to remove a child from harm?
VIBHAKAR: Only the Department of Immigration and Border Protection of the government of Australia.
INSKEEP: Did they have people there?
VIBHAKAR: Yes, they did, but they interacted almost very rarely with asylum-seekers, and they refused to remove children.
INSKEEP: What did you do when it became apparent, in your view, that there was widespread abuse and that nobody was doing anything about it?
VIBHAKAR: So there was an Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into children in immigration detention, which is the human rights government agency in Australia. And after reviewing the information that my organization had provided voluntarily to this inquiry, I found that it lacked very important details. Namely, they failed to disclose the physical and sexual assault of children and the lack of safety of children.
INSKEEP: Who failed to disclose that?
VIBHAKAR: Save The Children Australia.
INSKEEP: So Save The Children Australia was questioned by this inquiry and didn't pass on information, so far as you could tell, that you knew?
VIBHAKAR: That's correct.
INSKEEP: All right. And so what did you do?
VIBHAKAR: I chose to make a report, an anonymous submission, detailing the abuse and systemic violations of human rights to children and families on Nauru. And I attached several thousand pages of documentation as well. And I sent it to the commission.
INSKEEP: How, physically, did you send those several thousand documents?
VIBHAKAR: I did it by mail.
INSKEEP: So you went to the post office and...
VIBHAKAR: Yes, I did.
INSKEEP: ...Dropped it in a box?
VIBHAKAR: (Laughter) It was a bit more complicated than that. I wore a baseball cap and sunglasses and went to a post office farther from my house and paid cash because I was so scared of the Australian government.
INSKEEP: So did you have a moment, as that package went through the slot, of thinking, well, that's two years in jail?
VIBHAKAR: I had many of those moments because each disclosure is two years in jail (laughter). So I had many, many of those scary moments. And of course, I was eventually referred to the Australian Federal Police with nine other of my colleagues.
INSKEEP: Her documents are among many that have now been leaked about the abuse of refugees on the island of Nauru. As it happened, the Australian police never came for Viktoria Vibhakar, but she did lose her job with Save The Children. That organization said Australia only let it serve the refugees if it kept its work confidential.
It's been two years, hasn't it?
INSKEEP: What, if anything, has changed for the better?
VIBHAKAR: Well, I have to be honest. In Nauru, it's only gotten worse. Their mental health has deteriorated. And the hopelessness and the despair has increased. And this is undisputed by the Australian government. They know that this is causing harm.
INSKEEP: And we are not done with this story. Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, Save The Children gives us its version. And we have invited Australia's government to take our questions.