Six years after the Australian government began sending people seeking asylum to Nauru, there are still around 900 people left on the island, including an estimated 109 children. All of them will have been there for over four years. Almost 200 people lived in a processing centre, including 14 children, until they were cleared out along with tents and temporary accommodation they were living in for the Pacific Island Forum.
In 2013, Amnesty International reported that Australia’s policy of offshore processing was breaking people. Six years on, people are broken. Children as young as 7 and 12 are experiencing repeated incidents of suicide attempts, dousing themselves in petrol, and becoming catatonic. At least two people have killed themselves, and three others have died. Many more are trying to kill or harm themselves. People are losing their hope and their lives on this island. This is Australia’s man-made refugee crisis in the country it still treats as a colony, Nauru.
Experts are saying that the people transferred to Nauru by Australia are among the most traumatised they have seen, even more traumatised than those in war zones or in refugee camps around the world. Despite repeated calls by the United Nations, medical bodies, hundreds of charities and community groups, both major political parties in Australia continue to believe that it is politically necessary to punish a small number of highly vulnerable people at extraordinary cost. Those costs are borne not only by those people, but also by Australian taxpayers and to Australia’s democracy and sense of itself as a humane, decent country.
Despite unprecedented efforts at secrecy by both governments, Australians and the world cannot claim they do not know what is happening on Nauru. There have been many reports by the Australian Parliament, by civil society organisations and the UN documenting sexual and other forms of abuse, of seriously deficient medical treatment and appalling conditions amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Many of those living there have spoken out and shared their suffering at great risk to themselves, as have brave whistleblowers who have worked there.
What is happening now on Nauru has gone well beyond our worst fears when this policy was resumed in 2012. Australia’s policy has traumatised children so much that they are giving up eating and trying to kill themselves. Australian courts are increasingly forced to step in so that people can get the medical treatment they urgently need, as the Australian Government repeatedly ignores doctors’ advice and does everything it can to avoid people being transferred to Australia, including sending them to Taiwan and Papua New Guinea. It has even tried to coerce a 63-year-old man dying of lung cancer to die in Taiwan, and to send a woman to Papua New Guinea to terminate her pregnancy, despite it being illegal there.
It has also separated around 35 people from their families, between Nauru, Papua New Guinea and Australia. There are fathers who have never held their babies, mothers who have had to leave behind their children on Nauru. By insisting that family members stay behind when others need medical treatment, the Australian Government puts people’s lives at risk. In one case, by the time the Australian Government agreed to let a young boy with traumatic withdrawal syndrome be transferred with his family, he was 36 kilograms and could not even stand. Every family member of every child (except for parent staying in hospital) has been detained on arrival.
For many there is no end in sight. While the Government of the United States of America has offered to resettle up to 1,250 refugees, only around 335 people have so far left, almost two years since the agreement. At least 121 refugees have already been refused resettlement, and many people are from countries subject to ‘extreme vetting’. Of the seven people who took up Cambodia’s offer of resettlement, only one is reported to still be there.
Australia still adamantly refuses to even accept the offer of the New Zealand government to resettle 150 people, even though it has conceded that there will be no other third countries coming forward to resettle those left. It continues to double down on its position that they will never come to Australia, even for the handful of people who have family in Australia or for those raped in Nauru.