HARROWING tales of how abuse and mental deterioration are driving refugees in Nauru to attempt suicide have emerged yet again, this time in a comprehensive report released Monday by global rights group Amnesty International (AI).
In the 64-page report titled “Island of Despair” – the result of a combination of field and desk research carried out between July 1 and October – the group flagged the Australian government for flouting international rights conventions, saying the conditions at the camp that the refugees are subjected to amount to “torture” under international law.
It said it was foreseeable how such living conditions – forcing refugees to live in a remote island where they are not wanted by locals and where they cannot receive police protection – would lead anyone to mental anguish.
Even if this had not been immediately clear, the government had known of these devastating effects for years, AI charged.
“The inescapable conclusion is that the abuse and anguish that constitutes the daily reality of refugees and asylum-seekers on Nauru is the express intention of the Government of Australia,” it said in the report available on its website.
“In furtherance of a policy to deter people arriving in Australia by boat, the Government of Australia has made a calculation in which intolerable cruelty and the destruction of the physical and mental integrity of hundreds of children, men and women, have been chosen as a tool of government policy.
“In so doing, the Government of Australia is in breach of international human rights law and international refugee law,” it added.
According to AI, its researchers found through numerous interviews with refugees at the camp that the combination of severe mental anguish and the harmful nature of the refugee processing system in Nauru have driven many in the camp to self-harm and suicide attempts.
The report said “almost all” of those spoken to – including young children – suffered from poor mental health.
In one case, a man told AI that he had tried to kill himself twice in the previous 10 weeks; once in May this year when he doused himself in petrol, and a second time two months later in July when he drank washing-up liquid and had to be hospitalized.
One Iranian refugee said her suicide attempts were more regular, sometimes two or three times a week. Eventually, she resorted to setting her family dwelling on fire, and is now in a medical ward in the center.
Another man told AI how his pregnant wife tried to hang herself – he found her in the bathroom with rope marks on her neck.
In another case, a family with a young daughter spent 18 months confined to a tent, during which the child developed symptoms of distress and poor health. Her father told AI how she would vomit and wet her bed nightly or wake up screaming.
In yet another case, a man said his wife started developing mental health issues after their arrival in Nauru. One week after their daughter was born, she saw a young Iranian man set himself on fire, and immediately lost her breastmilk. She has barely talked or left their home since the incident, the man said.
Quoting one 19-year-old Syrian refugee who was describing his three years on the island, the report said: “I felt like I was a slave. Being detained is like feeling you did something wrong – like you are a criminal.”
Cruel conditions on Nauru have driven many to self-harm and even suicide, as Eli, an Iranian refugee told us pic.twitter.com/t9PXguOMd8
— amnestypress (@amnestypress) October 17, 2016
Stress from years of being trapped on Nauru – one of the smallest countries in the world – is not the only problem faced by refugees.
“The country is not a safe place for them to stay,” the report said.
It said many of those interviewed how they or their friends and family had been attacked or subjected to verbal abuse inside and outside the refugee center.
“Akash,” a refugee from Bangladesh, suffered serious head trauma in May 2016 when he was attacked by a group of Nauruan men.
According to the report, Akash said the group threw a large rock at him, kicked him off his motorbike, and beat him after he fell.
“They beat me unconscious and stole my motorbike. I am still in pain from the injuries,” he was quoted telling AI’s researchers.
Anna Neistat, AI’s senior director of research, who managed to enter the remote and secretive Nauru island to investigate the allegations of human rights abuses, categorized the refugee processing center as an “open-air prison”.
— amnestypress (@amnestypress) October 17, 2016
She claimed the center was designed to inflict as much suffering as necessary to stop some of the world’s most vulnerable people from trying to find safety in Australia.
Those who arrive to Australia by boat are currently transferred immediately to its processing centers on either Manus Island in Papua New Guinea or the remote Pacific island of Nauru. The government says the policy is meant to deter people smugglers and to protect these asylum seekers who might otherwise undertake the hazardous boat crossing to Australia.
But according to Neistat, however, through the center, this policy is a “vicious trap”.
— AmnestyInternational (@amnesty) October 17, 2016
“The government of Australia has isolated vulnerable women, men and children in a remote place which they cannot leave, with the specific intention that these people should suffer. And suffer they have – it has been devastating and in some cases, irreparable,” she said.
“It’s a vicious trap. People in anguish attempt to end their own lives to escape it, but then find themselves behind bars, hurled into a prison within a prison.
“The Australian government’s policy is the exact opposite of what countries should be pursuing. It is a model that minimises protection and maximises harm.”
For the report, researchers from the global rights group visited Nauru, met with 58 asylum seekers and refugees from nine countries, as well as four service providers. They also conducted phone interviews with the refugees as well as interviews with 13 individuals who are currently employed by, or had previously worked for, companies or organizations that provide services on Nauru under contract to the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
It said during the interviews its researchers were provided with a wide range of corroborating evidence, including photos, videos, audio recordings, police records, written complaints to service-providers, confidential incident reports, employment contracts for service-providers, email exchanges with border protection, screen shots of dozens of social media exchanges, and hundreds of pages of medical records.
In Australia, researchers also met or spoke with family members of refugees on Nauru, Australian lawyers, Australian and international civil society organizations, representatives of the company that provides health care service on Nauru (International Health and Medical Services), as well as a range of UN representatives.
AI said for the report, it also read and coded the “Nauru Files”, the cache of over 2,000 leaked incident reports that UK-daily The Guardian published in August.