Children in Australia's offshore migrant center are so distraught, some have attempted suicide
A 12-year-old Iranian refugee girl who tried to self-immolate with gasoline rests at refugee Camp Five on the Pacific island of Nauru on Sept. 2. (Mike Leyral/AFP/Getty Images) (MIKE LEYRAL/AFP/Getty Images) September 20 at 9:19 AM
Theyâve come from as far as Iran and Afghanistan, Somalia and Myanmar.
But the children are now stuck on Nauru, a desolate island in the South Pacific thatâs little more than eight miles square. Theyâre caught in a strict Australian immigration system that has left them stranded. Some of them have become so depressed after years of living in limbo that they have lost their will to live, those working with them say.
About 100 chi ldren live on Nauru, one of the remote islands where Australia operates offshore processing centers for migrants. Theyâve been there for so long that âseveral children have lost all hope to the point that they are no longer speaking or eating,â Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Center in Melbourne, told The Washington Post this week.
âEven some of the governmentâs most senior medical advisers are warning that children may die,â he said. âItâs a miracle one hasnât died already.â
When they left home, their families were hoping to reach Australia, where many planned to apply for asylum. But in 2013, Australian authorities changed their migration policy, authorizing the detention of migrants and asylum seekers who try to reach Australia by boat. Instead of being allowed into Australia, they are placed, apparently indefinitely, on Nauru, or Manus Island, which is part of Papua New Guinea.
Once sent offshore, asylum se ekers have little hope of ever reaching Australia. They donât want to return to where they came from, but they often donât have anywhere else to go. Devastated by extensive phosphate strip mining, about 80 percent of the island is uninhabitable with much of the marine life killed by mining runoff. The weather is hot and humid year around.
Medical and human rights professionals have said publicly that in the face of this uncertainty, a number of asylum-seeking children on Nauru have developed health problems, including a condition known as âresignation syndrome.â This dangerous medical condition has been recorded in other asylum-seeking populations, notably in Sweden. It can be brought on by trauma and stress. Those who develop the syndrome essentially stop communicating with the outside world. They struggle to eat, drink and speak. They have trouble opening their eyes, and in extreme cases, lose consciousness and can require a feeding tube. Last week, the Guardian rep orted that about a dozen children on Nauru are refusing food and drink.
In the past year, Webb said, more than 30 critically ill children were evacuated from detention on Nauru and taken to Australia for âurgent medical care.â But he said the Australian government has resisted such evacuations unless it is legally forced to comply. âMany of these cases have involved children who have repeatedly attempted suicide or who have become withdrawn and stopped eating or drinking,â Webb said.
Recently, a 12-year-old girl on Nauru attempted to set herself on fire, and a court ordered that a 10-year-old boy, who had tried several times to kill himself, receive treatment in Australia.
In an email, a spokesman for the Australian Department of Home Affairs said the Australian government has provided âsignificant supportâ to Nauru for health and welfare services.
âA range of care, welfare and support arrangements are in place to provide for the needs of re fugee children and young people,â the spokesman said. âService providers are contracted to provide age-appropriate health, education, recreational and cultural services.â
A refugee from Somalia, who had attempted suicide, does kitchen chores at Camp Five on the Pacific island of Nauru on Sept. 2. (Mike Leyral/AFP/Getty Images) (MIKE LEYRAL/AFP/Getty Images)
But there have been increasing calls for Australia to reassess its offshore processing policy, which Australian officials have said is necessary to curb migration. On Thursday, The Guardian reported that the president of the Australian Medical Association wrote to Australiaâs new prime minister, Scott Morrison, calling the physical and mental health conditions for families on Nauru âa humanitarian emergency requiring urgent intervention.â
In the letter, Tony Barto ne urged the prime minister to change the countryâs policy. âThere are now too many credible reports concerning the effects of long-term detention and uncertainty on the physical and mental health of asylum seekers,â he wrote.
But Morrison, who previously served as immigration minister, has historically taken a tough line on migration. As the New York Times reported this month, he keeps a small model of a boat in his office. The words âI stopped theseâ are engraved on its side. It was a gift from a constituent.
In June, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton warned that âa single act of compassion,â such as bringing people out of the island detention centers would fuel more migrants to board boats and try to reach Australia. âThe boats havenât gone away, and if there is a success defined by an arrival of a boat in Australia, then the word will spread like wildfire,â he told the Weekend Australian.
In Nauru, the government has suggested th at children who have fallen ill are doing so at the encouragement of their parents and other adults coaching them on how to get to Australia. In an interview with Sky News in August, Nauru President Baron Waqa said children are âworking the system, probably short-circuiting it, just to get to Australia.â
Medical professionals publicly pushed back against those claims. Webb insists that the scale of human suffering on Nauru is severe.
âTheyâve been surrounded by misery for the last five years,â Webb said. Some of the children âhave never known a day of freedom in their lives.â
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