THE CHILDREN OF NAURU:
the lost kids in detention
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.