Despairing refugees protest, self-harm on Nauru

Melbourne rally for refugee rights, October 21. Photo: Ali Bakhtiarvandi

An Iranian man became the fourth asylum seeker to attempt suicide in Australia’s detention camp on Nauru on October 24. He was cut down from hanging himself by guards and other refugees. Other acts of self-harm have also broken out on the island. On October 25, one detainee told Green Left Weekly that another man who injured himself with a razor did not get any medical care.

The wave of self-harm and hunger strikes has hit the detention camp after only a month of the Labor government’s return to a “Pacific solution” for refugees.

But the men – about 400 people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka – have staged several vocal and lively protests inside the camp, calling for their rights as asylum seekers and the ending of deportations from Australia to Nauru.

One Iranian refugee has maintained a hunger strike, which was into its 14th day on October 25. Fellow asylum seekers say he was having trouble moving and sitting, and a nurse had warned of kidney failure. But he said he wanted to stay on strike until their demands were met.

Six others were also refusing food on October 23. Then on October 26, a day on which Muslims were celebrating the festival holiday Eid al-Adha, all 400 men in the camp held a 24-hour hunger strike. They said: “For us this is a day of sorrow, not celebration.”

Soon after, heavy rains in the camp caused the tents to leak and flood much of the area.

The men have also authored several letters and distributed them via a Facebook page.

Conditions in the basic Nauru camp have rapidly grown fetid in the heat, as the government continues to transport small groups of asylum seekers a few dozen at a time, at a cost of almost $10,000 per trip.

The tents were built with no air conditioning or relief from the rising temperatures. There is also very little shade in the camp and the men are suffering continuously.

So far, refugees have reported high levels of nightly headaches, respiratory irritation, severe toothaches and even an outbreak of dysentery — which is potentially fatal.

A message from Afghan asylum seekers on October 18 said “most of the asylum seekers are suffering from horrible skin diseases that the officials’ only solution to is to recommend Panadol and an intake of cold water”. They also fear being quarantined if they contract any diseases.

Access to clean water has been limited, because everything at the camp has to be flown in. Refugees say they are using dirty water for showers and cleaning.

The state of care being provided by Australian personnel is unclear and questionable. A refugee imprisoned on Nauru told GLW via a Skype interview that detainees had seen no media or human rights groups inside the fence.

He said no immigration workers have come to hear their claims for protection either. A key demand of refugees on Nauru is that Australia begins to process their refugee claims, but there have been no signs the government will take this step.

It is not even clear who will undertake recognising the refugee status of those sent to Nauru by Australia. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it did not “envisage any operational or active role” in the Nauru or Manus Island centres because “this is a matter for Australia's responsibilities under the refugee convention”.

The Australian government initially said refugees would be processed under Nauru’s law. Nauru has tabled laws to begin processing “as soon as practicable”. But it has no laws recognising the rights of people to seek refugee status, nor any structure for assessing refugees in place.

Similar criticisms were raised when the Labor government tried to deport refugees to Malaysia.

The immigration department said a Refugee Review Tribunal would be set up on the island, so rejected refugees could appeal the decision in the Nauru Supreme Court, and then the Australian High Court.

The government’s lax approach to begin processing indicates Nauru’s Topside detention centre camp is being set up as a place of permanent internment — under the government’s so-called “no advantage” plan.

Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson Ian Rintoul told ABC radio on October 24 that “the government seems in no hurry whatsoever”.

“Their no advantage policy is being interpreted as creating conditions on Nauru that are worse than the conditions they may have come from … The conditions that they’re creating in Nauru are designed to coerce people into returning.”

Indeed, the harsh conditions have prompted almost 50 asylum seekers to decide to return to the countries from which they fled persecution, rather than face detention on Nauru.

The immigration department said on October 20 that four more men had apparently decided to return to Sri Lanka, which a spokesperson said was “further proof that there is no advantage engaging with people smugglers”.

Almost a third of asylum seekers coming to Australia are Tamils fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka. Immigration is trying to pitch these coercive returns of asylum seekers as successful “deterrence”.

But indefinite detention on Nauru is, in effect, a form of mental torture designed to crush the hope of people who travelled to Australia to seek protection and safety.

They are not being treated like people exercising their legal and moral right to seek protection. Rather, the entire system is quickly revealing itself to be a new kind of persecution for traumatised refugees.

After surviving and fleeing from some of the world’s worst regimes, wars and persecution, more refugees that end up in Australian custody are finally losing hope and opting to attempt suicide.

Much of the mainstream media is focusing on the “cost blow out” that Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s “border control” policy is causing. The Sydney Morning Herald said the immigration department’s budget has blown out $1.2 billion since the Pacific solution was restarted.

But as the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said recently, rather than spending $5 billion to detain 1350 asylum seekers offshore, for $5 million “ASRC could support all 1350 [asylum seekers] onshore saving $4.95 billion”.