the lost kids in de­ten­tion

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents - Sa­man­tha Trenoweth re­ports.

Typ­ing se­cret text mes­sages on her phone, a young woman sits in a dark­ened motel room in the fi­nal, mad weeks of 2018. Out­side the door, a se­cu­rity guard stands watch. The guard is not keep­ing dan­ger out but keep­ing this young woman in, although she’s com­mit­ted no crime. He could en­ter at any mo­ment, so she must type quickly. She had ar­ranged to speak on the phone with The Weekly, but has now been warned that she must have no con­tact with the me­dia. She is sorry, she says, and the mes­sage stream falls silent.

Mean­while, across the coun­try in Can­berra, par­lia­ment is brought to a close just shy of a vote on Ker­ryn Phelps’ bill to speed up med­i­cal evac­u­a­tions from Nauru. “Kids off Nauru” pe­ti­tions bear­ing the sig­na­tures of A-list celebri­ties, med­i­cal doc­tors and or­di­nary Aus­tralians ar­rive in Can­berra in a del­uge. The global med­i­cal re­lief or­gan­i­sa­tion, Médecins Sans Fron­tières, re­leases a shock­ing re­port on the men­tal health of refugees and asy­lum seek­ers on the island. And the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees calls for “im­me­di­ate ac­tion ... on a mat­ter of ba­sic hu­man treat­ment and de­cency.”

The pres­sure to find a hu­mane al­ter­na­tive to off­shore pro­cess­ing is build­ing like a summer storm. It’s the last thing the al­ready be­lea­guered Mor­ri­son Gov­ern­ment needs.

Half a world away, in the United States, Stella [not her real name – The Weekly has agreed to con­ceal her iden­tity] has just made break­fast for her four brave, bright, re­silient kids. Stella is 42, a Tamil refugee and a sin­gle mother. She and her hus­band were sep­a­rated dur­ing their flight from Sri Lanka to In­dia and on, via a fright­en­ing jour­ney at sea, to Nauru.

“It was not courage” that drove her to com­plete the jour­ney with­out him. “I had to find a safe place for my chil­dren,” she says.

Af­ter four years on Nauru, Stella ac­cepted a place in Mal­colm

Turn­bull’s refugee swap with the USA. Her hus­band wasn’t per­mit­ted to join her in Nauru and she has lit­tle hope they will be re­united in Amer­ica, but she signed up for the re­set­tle­ment be­cause, she says, “My great­est fear was we would per­ish there, we would die there and the chil­dren would have no fu­ture ... My fear was that we would all end our lives on Nauru.”

Stella takes issue with Tony Ab­bott’s as­sur­ance the tiny island na­tion is a trop­i­cal par­adise.

“It was a ter­ri­ble place,” she in­sists. “At first, we lived in a tent. We were per­mit­ted to roam around within the camp but we couldn’t leave the camp ex­cept for health checks and so on.”

The camp, says Mat Tin­kler, who trav­elled there over three years with Save the Chil­dren Aus­tralia, was built on top of a dis­used phos­phate mine. “So this was a pile of rub­ble tents were pitched on for people to live in. It’s in a de­pres­sion in the mid­dle of the island, so you don’t get any breeze and there’s trop­i­cal heat, so it’s sti­flingly hot. It’s dusty be­cause you’re in this old mine; it’s hot, hu­mid and sweaty; you’re liv­ing in tents so there’s no respite from the heat.”

“There was ab­so­lutely no green­ery,” says Stella. “We walked around on that rocky sur­face. It would heat up and we found it hard to stay on it for too long, but it was so hot that it was im­pos­si­ble to live in­side the tents.

The tents were atro­cious to live in.”

Meal­times were te­dious and time-con­sum­ing and “the food was very strange,” says Stella. “It was boiled meat and so on. We were un­used to it and the chil­dren would vomit in the early days. In the morn­ing, we would line up at the mess for break­fast. Then we would go back to the mess for lunch and din­ner. Life re­volved around lin­ing up, hav­ing our meal and get­ting back to our tent.”

There was, she says, lit­tle in­ter­ac­tion be­tween fam­i­lies in the camp, and al­most noth­ing was or­gan­ised to cre­ate di­ver­sion, en­ter­tain­ment or a sense of com­mu­nity.

“We all had our own prob­lems and our own fam­i­lies to care for,” she ex­plains. “Many of the chil­dren had se­ri­ous prob­lems. Some were at­tempt­ing sui­cide; oth­ers were very de­pressed. My own chil­dren were of­ten up­set. They would say, ‘Let’s all kill our­selves to­gether – we can’t keep liv­ing like this.’ They didn’t try to harm them­selves. I didn’t let my chil­dren get to that stage, but I was aware of chil­dren with­draw­ing from con­tact and be­ing very much alone. So the par­ents were al­ways watch­ful.”

Louise New­man AM, Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chi­a­try at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne, who has worked with refugees and people seek­ing asy­lum for many years, says she has been shocked by the men­tal and emo­tional suf­fer­ing of people liv­ing on Nauru.

“It’s not like you have a nice so­ci­ety or com­mu­nity there that’s mu­tu­ally sup­port­ive,” she ex­plains. “It’s a group of people who are de­pressed, de­spair­ing, in­creas­ingly feel­ing they have no fu­ture. The thing people give up is a sense of con­nec­tion with any­one. People be­come with­drawn.

“Par­ents feel ter­ri­ble guilt for bring­ing their chil­dren there. The ma­jor­ity of people had no idea their chil­dren would be­come pris­on­ers, in a sense for­ever. I treat young moth­ers who feel over­whelm­ingly guilty. I’ve had par­ents ask if I’d help them sui­cide be­cause they be­lieved their chil­dren would then be re­leased. It’s hor­ren­dous. Like any par­ents, these people want a pos­i­tive fu­ture for their chil­dren and it’s a ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion if you feel you can’t of­fer that.”

Médecins Sans Fron­tières (MSF) was last month evicted from Nauru by the lo­cal gov­ern­ment. It an­nounced the “men­tal health suf­fer­ing” it wit­nessed dur­ing its 11 months there was among the most se­vere it has seen – even in projects where it pro­vided care for vic­tims of tor­ture.

Al­most one-third of the refugee and asy­lum-seeker pa­tients MSF treated on the island had at­tempted sui­cide; al­most two-thirds suf­fered mod­er­ate to se­vere de­pres­sion; 25 per cent were di­ag­nosed with anx­i­ety dis­or­der and 18 per cent with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der. Their doc­tors saw chil­dren as young as nine who had sui­ci­dal thoughts, com­mit­ted acts of self-harm or at­tempted sui­cide. Twelve of their pa­tients were di­ag­nosed with res­ig­na­tion syn­drome, a rare psy­chi­atric con­di­tion in which pa­tients stop eat­ing, drink­ing and in­ter­act­ing with the out­side world, fall into a co­matose state and re­quire med­i­cal care to live.

Louise has worked along­side lawyers to ob­tain fed­eral court or­ders to evac­u­ate these chil­dren from Nauru. In spite of in­creas­ing pub­lic pres­sure and aware­ness around the issue, the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to op­pose med­i­cal evac­u­a­tion cases in court and, in some cases, the Nau­ruan Gov­ern­ment has re­fused to ap­prove air am­bu­lance land­ings. In re­cent weeks, how­ever, there has been an in­crease in med­i­cal trans­fers.

“One lit­tle girl whose fam­ily I spoke to,” Louise re­calls, “had be­come in­creas­ingly de­pressed, with­drawn, be­lieved she had no fu­ture. It’s very dis­tress­ing when you hear a 10 year old say they might be bet­ter off if they weren’t alive, and that’s com­mon. She’d made threats to harm her­self. She had petrol and a lighter ... but she was stopped. So there were se­ri­ous be­hav­iours ex­press­ing how hope­less she felt. She had some lim­ited coun­selling on Nauru but she wouldn’t talk to them. So she ended up not go­ing to school, not eat­ing or drink­ing. She took to her bed. She said there was noth­ing to be awake for, so she just lay there and even­tu­ally went into this state where they’re so with­drawn their health is dan­ger­ously com­pro­mised. It is a life-threat­en­ing con­di­tion. She needed even­tu­ally to be mede­vaced off the island and has been in hos­pi­tal in Aus­tralia. But her sisters were left be­hind and now they’ve both be­come de­spair­ing, with sim­i­lar symp­toms. This is very dif­fi­cult to treat in the long-term if there is noth­ing put in place that makes them feel safe about the fu­ture.”

MSF doc­tors found that, while their pa­tients had experienced hor­rific cir­cum­stances prior to their ar­rival on Nauru (in­clud­ing com­bat sit­u­a­tions, phys­i­cal and sex­ual as­sault and de­ten­tion), “the in­def­i­nite na­ture of the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment pol­icy was among the main stres­sors in their lives”. MSF de­scribes the ef­fects of that de­ten­tion as “cat­a­strophic”.

“No-one told us what our fu­ture would be, what the next stage was,” Stella ex­plains. “We had no hope.”

“The issue of in­def­i­nite­ness – that there is no time­frame for the de­ten­tion process – has a strong im­pact on my pa­tients’ men­tal health,” says MSF psy­chi­a­trist Dr Pa­tri­cia Sch­mid. “They tell me even pris­on­ers have a sen­tence – they know when they will be re­leased, they can plan their lives. My pa­tients don’t have that, so they fear for the fu­ture. They’re com­pletely hope­less.”

They are also pow­er­less. “Pa­tients spoke about the in­jus­tice of their sit­u­a­tion,” says an­other MSF psy­chi­a­trist Dr Beth O’Con­nor.

“Most people have been recog­nised as refugees, yet while they have been told there are pro­cesses to re­set­tle­ment, the cri­te­ria are un­clear. People try to learn the ‘rules’ of the sys­tem but the rules keep chang­ing. They re­alise it is im­pos­si­ble to help them­selves.”

Sayma [also not her real name] is 19, the el­dest of four sib­lings now liv­ing with their par­ents in Amer­ica. She is a Ro­hingya refugee, born in Myan­mar (Burma). She spent five years on Christ­mas Island and Nauru and says the in­for­ma­tion her fam­ily was given about their fu­ture was con­tra­dic­tory and con­fus­ing. “It was a po­lit­i­cal game,” she says. “We pa­tiently waited a year, a second year, a third, a fourth. On Christ­mas Island they told us only people who go to Nauru will be pro­cessed by Aus­tralia and ac­cepted. On Nauru we heard we would never be ac­cepted by Aus­tralia, even af­ter we had been ac­knowl­edged as refugees. Then we were told if we don’t ac­cept to go to the USA, we will stay on Nauru for 20 years.”

Af­ter roughly two years in the camp, Stella’s ap­pli­ca­tion for refugee sta­tus was ac­cepted and she was re­leased into the com­mu­nity. She was pro­vided with a small “house made from metal” which was as hot as the tents, but here at least there was a rudi­men­tary kitchen and she could cook for her chil­dren.

Yet Stella’s or­deal was not over. Her youngest, her only son, who was seven at the time, fell ill. “There was pus and blood com­ing from his ears,” she re­calls, and the doc­tor on the island ad­vised that she take him to a spe­cial­ist in Port Moresby. But there was a prob­lem. “They told me that I could not take the other chil­dren with me, and I wasn’t pre­pared to leave them be­hind.”

By then, Stella’s older daugh­ters were 14 and 16 and, she says, “there was a sit­u­a­tion where men in Nauru would in­ter­fere with young girls.

I did not fear the guards or my fel­low in­mates but I was fright­ened of the men of Nauru. I had wit­nessed in­ci­dents where they had done bad things to women and I feared for my daugh­ters.” Stella’s tiny metal house had no locks.

MSF found that 23 per cent of their refugee and asy­lum seeker pa­tients had experienced vi­o­lence on Nauru, and Louise sup­ports that claim.

“Very high rates of sex­ual as­sault have gone on there,” she says gravely. “I’ve heard some ghastly ex­pe­ri­ences of women liv­ing in the com­mu­nity. Their hous­ing is un­safe. It can’t be locked up. I was speak­ing to one woman on the phone who said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m go­ing to have to hang up now be­cause the men are com­ing to rape me.’ It is hideous. I spoke to her af­ter­wards and she sur­vived that, but it was a reg­u­lar ex­pe­ri­ence for her ... There have been re­ports like that on the pub­lic record, so gov­ern­ment was aware of it. You think, what are we do­ing, sub­ject­ing people to these sorts of ex­pe­ri­ences?”

There were other dan­gers in the com­mu­nity, too. “When we walked on the streets, the people of Nauru would beat us, pull our hair, take away our phones and so on,” Stella says. “If we com­plained to the po­lice, we would be ig­nored.”

The only school avail­able, af­ter

Save the Chil­dren (who ran an Aus­tralian-cur­ricu­lum school there un­til 2015) was sent pack­ing, was a lo­cal Nau­ruan one, and many of the refugee chil­dren re­fused to at­tend, com­plain­ing of bul­ly­ing. “Of­ten they would come home from school cry­ing,” says Stella.

To­day, Stella’s two youngest (aged 11 and nine) at­tend Amer­i­can pub­lic schools and are do­ing well. The two el­dest, who are 18 and 19, like Stella, work long hours in min­i­mum-wage jobs (which pay as lit­tle as $7.25 an hour) to keep the fam­ily afloat. As part of the “refugee swap”, each fam­ily has to re­pay the cost of its trans­fer from Nauru, so Stella ar­rived in Amer­ica with a sub­stan­tial debt. Sayma is the only mem­ber of her fam­ily who has been able to find work and is work­ing two imin­i­mum-wage jobs back to back, start­ing each day at 6am and fin­ish­ing af­ter 11 at night. With­out the help of Aus­tralian ex­pat char­ity, Ads-Up, their tran­si­tions would have been even more dif­fi­cult.

“I was hop­ing we’d all have a bright fu­ture,” Stella says, “but the el­der chil­dren missed out on four years of ed­u­ca­tion, so I think they’ll spend the rest of their lives work­ing the way

we do now. The younger ones, though, I be­lieve they will have good lives.”

She is re­lieved to have found a per­ma­nent home and ea­ger to share her story if it will help oth­ers es­cape in­def­i­nite de­ten­tion.

Stella says she sur­vived be­cause, “I put my faith in God and I asked my chil­dren to put their faith in God. In the mid­dle of the night, when the chil­dren were asleep, I’d go across the room to a pic­ture of Je­sus and I would weep and cry and plead, and I’d come back with some hope. I had faith. It’s my faith that saved me and brought me to Amer­ica.”

As we go to press, a spokesper­son for the Depart­ment of Home Af­fairs tells The Weekly that 10 chil­dren re­main on Nauru, of whom four are shortly to re­set­tle in the USA. Those who have been evac­u­ated for med­i­cal rea­sons are ei­ther re­ceiv­ing treat­ment in Aus­tralian hos­pi­tals or liv­ing un­der guard in ho­tel rooms and pub­lic hous­ing. There ap­pears to be no plan, at present, for their re­set­tle­ment or long-term care, and long-term care is what these chil­dren need.

“We have a group of chil­dren,” Louise says, “who were born in de­ten­tion or who grew up in de­ten­tion and ... the harsh treat­ment they have re­ceived could po­ten­tially cause life­long prob­lems – par­tic­u­larly in terms of re­lat­ing to other people and learning how to deal with emo­tions ... We know abused chil­dren in the gen­eral com­mu­nity can have longterm prob­lems with learning, with be­hav­iour, with emo­tions. This is not re­ally so dif­fer­ent, but the ter­ri­ble irony is that this abuse is sys­tem­atic – it’s put in place by a sys­tem over­seen by the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment.

“If gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues, as it should, to al­low people who need treat­ment to have treat­ment, part of that is to plan for re­cov­ery. I think the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion would be happy to talk with gov­ern­ment about that but to my knowl­edge it hasn’t hap­pened yet.”

The United Na­tions Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights, to which Aus­tralia is a sig­na­tory, en­shrines the “right to seek and en­joy asy­lum in other coun­tries from per­se­cu­tion”. There is no caveat ex­clud­ing boat travel. And it en­shrines the right to a na­tion­al­ity. The people de­tained on Nauru and Manus Island have bro­ken no in­ter­na­tional or Aus­tralian law, yet they have been im­pris­oned in con­di­tions that Louise claims are far worse than she has seen in Aus­tralian jails. And for as long as they re­main in Aus­tralia, these people to whom the gov­ern­ment has re­fused asy­lum, will re­main state­less.

Is Aus­tralia cul­pa­ble for the dam­age done to the chil­dren and adults de­tained in off­shore cen­tres over the 17 years since the Howard Gov­ern­ment’s Pa­cific So­lu­tion came to pass?

“I per­son­ally would sup­port a royal com­mis­sion or a suit­able com­mis­sion of en­quiry,” says Louise. “There are ques­tions to be asked of both sides of pol­i­tics. This is not party po­lit­i­cal. I would ask why this was thought to be nec­es­sary? Were they aware of the harm and dam­age? What did they do to try to re­duce that? How can this be jus­ti­fied? This is one of the biggest hu­man rights is­sues Aus­tralia has ever faced. I think a royal com­mis­sion, a call­ing to ac­count and a gov­ern­men­tled apol­ogy in­volv­ing both par­ties would be very ap­pro­pri­ate.”

Mat says that, af­ter his very first trip to Nauru, “I came back think­ing I had wit­nessed a stain on his­tory, and that his­tory would judge Aus­tralia very harshly for this episode. That hasn’t changed for me. I think that will be the case in time.”

In terms of a long-term so­lu­tion, Mat says he un­der­stands that the issue of people trav­el­ling by boat to Aus­tralia is com­pli­cated. And that “some pol­icy set­tings have seemed to in­cen­tivise that way of travel,” which can re­sult in deaths at sea.

“If the gov­ern­ment in­sists on off­shore pro­cess­ing,” he be­lieves, “they should cre­ate a gen­uine pro­cess­ing cen­tre where people are as­sessed and a suit­able place of re­set­tle­ment is found quickly.” The only thing hold­ing back re­set­tle­ment agree­ments with other coun­tries is po­lit­i­cal will.

“It was a liv­ing hell on Nauru,” says Stella fi­nally. “The people who are still there must be given treat­ment and a per­ma­nent home.”

Once a dis­ued phos­phate mine, chil­dren play on the hot, dusty rub­ble at the camp, where there’s no respite from the heat. Apart from shar­ing meal­times, there’s no in­ter­ac­tion be­tween fam­i­lies and no sense of com­mu­nity for the chil­dren.

In the camp, damp mouldy tents housed en­tire fam­i­lies in cramped con­di­tions and sti­fling heat. Out­side, metal houses were hot and un­safe, in­creas­ing the sense of hope­lesness.


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