This week’s revelations about the abuse of women and children on Nauru are horrifying, but sadly are not new issues for refugees and asylum seekers trying to reach Australia.
Three weeks ago I tried to meet a Tamil woman, Malarvily Thevaparan, who sought find asylum in Australia from the sustained sexual abuse and other forms of torture at the hands of the Sri Lankan government.
I was intending to visit the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) in Broadmeadows, along with advocates from the Tamil Refugee Council, to offer her some moral support but none of us were allowed to visit her. It seems pretty clear to me from this experience that they do not want her story to be told. As we weren’t able to talk in person, Malarvily gave me permission to read her testimony and write about it.
Reading Malarvily’s testimony is heart breaking. As a child in the 1980s she worked with the LTTE, though was not engaged in fighting. When the Sri Lankan government took over the area she was living in, she was arrested and spent years in jail. She managed to escape but was later taken to a notorious torture centre in Colombo where she was raped and tortured.
Finally with the help of a brother in London she managed to escape to India, but finding more horrendous treatment at the refugee camp, decided she would try to seek safety in Australia.
They went by boat and were picked up by the Australian Border Force and then sent to Nauru. Unsurprisingly, the prison-like conditions on Nauru triggered her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and she was given sleeping pills to cope. While sedated she was sexually assaulted again. Malarvily was moved to the detention camp in Melbourne in January of last year in response to her serious suffering, but the threat that she might be returned to Nauru has not been resolved.
Malarvily’s counsellors believe that she is at serious risk of a nervous breakdown or suicide, and that her distress is triggered by the detention centre environment. She has been held in detention by Australian orders for around two years now. Officials have not formally responded to requests to release her into the community.
If suddenly people like me started disappearing and the police weren’t interested in investigating I would want someone to challenge our government. If our government marshalled all the women and children and injured people into safe zones and then bombed those areas I would want someone to stand up for us.
I think we would all want this.
Yet this, and worse, happened in Sri Lanka during the decades long civil war in that country. Although recent elections deposed the Rajapaksa family, the new President was acting defence minister during the last two weeks of the civil war, when some of the worst alleged war crimes were committed by the Sri Lankan government.
Australia has been punishing, locking up indefinitely, or returning Sri Lankans who have attempted to reach safety by sea. John Key even negotiated with the Australian government to ensure that a mass arrival of asylum seekers from New Zealand could be sent to these same camps.
All people have the right to a safe place to live and to raise their families in peace. We should stand up for people who cannot stand up for themselves.
Australia’s horrific treatment of Malarvily, and thousands of people like her, needs to end, and the Governments of Australia and New Zealand need to do what they can to hold the government of Sri Lanka to account.