A Sri Lankan asylum seeker brought to Australia after she was allegedly drugged and sexually assaulted on Nauru has spoken of her terror at the prospect of being sent back to the island, the Guardian Australia reported.
Durga* (name changed) a Sri Lankan Tamil, has a two decade-long history of torture and trauma, including rape, both in Sri Lanka and while in the Australian-run detention on Nauru, but faces the possibility of being returned to the Pacific island’s detention centres pending a high court challenge on Wednesday.
“I am too scared to go back to that place, my life will not be safe,” she told Guardian Australia through an interpreter from immigration detention on the Australian mainland. “If I am sent back to Nauru, I will commit suicide.”
Durga is one of 267 asylum seekers – including 72 children and 33 babies born in Australia – who could be removed to Nauru on 72 hours’ notice, if the high court decides on Wednesday it is within the government’s constitutional powers to detain people offshore.
Several of the asylum seekers at risk of being sent back to Nauru have told Guardian Australia they fear going back to the island, regardless of the status of the centres, saying they will be attacked there, or sexually assaulted, or that they will not receive required medical care.
In 1996 in the northern Sri Lankan city of Jaffna, she was arrested by military officers who suspected her of links to the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Durga was 22 and had undergone, as almost all teenagers had, basic training with the LTTE. But she told Guardian Australia: “I was never a fighter, I was only involved in political activities.”
Durga says she was beaten and tortured, despite being pregnant, and gave birth to her son while in military custody. She was held for two years without charge or trial, before escaping to Colombo. Her husband disappeared while she was detained and has not been seen since. He is presumed dead, one of the tens of thousands “disappeared” during Sri Lanka’s civil war.
In Colombo, having been visited by friends from Jaffna, Durga was arrested again by military intelligence, interrogated and tortured. Even after being released, Durga says, she was almost routinely raped by the state’s security personnel.
“The military officers would come to my house. Every time they would come two or three men, they would grab me and force me to have sex with them. They expected me to cooperate, but I never did. I would resist. So they would tear my clothes from me, they would tie my hands and they would push clothes in my mouth so I could not scream. Then they would rape me,” she said.
“After they left, I would sit with my child and cry. They came back many times.”
Friends helped Durga escape to India in 2007 where she lived in a quasi-legal camp in Tamil Nadu, but further harassment by authorities caused her to board a boat, with her son, bound for Australia in 2014.
Durga was one of 157 Tamil asylum seekers on board a boat that was intercepted by an Australian customs vessel in July 2014. They were held on board the Australian ship for a month while the Australian government tried to return the people to India.
India refused to accept them, because they were not Indian citizens, and Australia was forced to bring the people to the Australian mainland, from where they were transferred to Nauru.
On Nauru, Durga says she never felt safe.
“In the tents, there were no locks, there could come into my tent at any time, and guards would threaten me and grab me. I was scared all the time,” she said.
“I was taking sleeping tablets because with my injuries from Sri Lanka, and my fear of being assaulted, I could not sleep. In the morning I woke up and my clothes were taken off me and things in my room had been moved. I felt like I had been raped.
“I was raped while I was taking the sleeping tablets I had been provided. I told the mental health nurse, who took my complaint seriously, and I was moved to Australia.”
Durga has been in detention in Australia with her son, now 19, since January 2015. She says she could not face being returned to Nauru.
“If I am sent back to Nauru, I will commit suicide. I cannot go back to that place.
“I don’t want any special treatment, I just want protection and freedom, that is all. I want to live without fear of being sent back to that place. I want to feel safe again.”
In a statement, Nauru police commissioner Corey Caleb said refugees regularly fabricated allegations of assault in order to garner publicity.
“They tell us they have been assaulted but their stories rarely add up: there is usually no physical evidence or witnesses or even any details.”
But the police force’s independence and capacity to properly investigate has been questioned.
A senate inquiry heard that detention centre operators had referred 50 cases to Nauruan police in recent years, but charges had been laid in just five cases, and nobody successfully prosecuted.
Nauru’s former resident magistrate, Peter Law, told the ABC last year Nauru’s police force was “politicised”.
Immigration minister Peter Dutton told Lateline on Tuesday night allegations of assault and sexual assault in detention centres were taken extremely seriously.
“The approach that we’ve taken and consistently is that if there are allegations that are being made we want those allegations to be properly investigated because, like any Australian, I won’t tolerate any thought of people, in particular children, being abused, by other refugees, by people otherwise.”
He said the government remained committed to its offshore processing policy, a key tenet of which is that any person who arrived in Australia by boat would not be settled in the country. Dutton said that policy had saved lives at sea.