Australia will investigate sexual abuse claims at its refugee detention center on Nauru, the government said on Friday, while removing 10 aid workers from the South Pacific island following reports of coaching detainees to commit self-harm protests.
Australia's tough policies aimed at stopping asylum seekers reaching the country by boat include sending migrants to camps in impoverished Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where they face long periods of detention while they are processed.
The policies have been heavily criticized by the United Nations and human rights groups.
Refugee advocates this week said women in the Nauru center were regularly required to strip and exchange sexual favors with guards for access to the showers, prompting calls for an investigation by the opposition Labor and Greens parties.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said there were also accusations children had been forced to have sex in front of guards at the center.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison told reporters an independent investigation headed by a former integrity commissioner and working with the Nauru government had been appointed to look into the claims.
"The matters that have been brought to my attention are concerning, certainly the allegations of sexual misconduct are abhorrent and I would be horrified to think that things of that nature have taken place," Morrison said.
Ten staff from Save the Children Australia were also being removed from Nauru, Morrison said, stressing the move was related to their professional conduct and not suspected misconduct regarding sexual abuse.
"If people want to be political activists, that's their choice, but they don't get to do it on the taxpayer's dollar and working in a sensitive place like Nauru," Morrison said.
"Making false claims and worse allegedly coaching self-harm and using children in protests is also completely unacceptable, whatever their political views or whatever their agendas."
Save the Children Australia, which provides counseling and support on the island, said it took the accusations seriously but "rejected in the strongest possible terms" statements that staff had fabricated stories of abuse or encouraged self-harm.
"The truth is that cases of child self-harm on Nauru are a reality that has been well documented," the group said in a statement. "Children have taken the drastic step of sewing their lips together and refusing food and water in protest at their indefinite incarceration."
Last month, Cambodia agreed to resettle potentially hundreds of refugees from the Nauru center in exchange for $35 million in aid, an opaque deal widely condemned as a threat to the safety of asylum seekers.