Refugee Council of Australia
Children with backs towards camera and arms crossed in front of fence

Australia’s man-made crisis on Nauru

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The trauma

Despite extraordinary efforts to suppress information coming out of Nauru, Australians and the world cannot claim they did not know what was happening to people. There have been widely publicised reports by the UN, the Australian Parliament, and human rights advocates documenting in grim detail the suffering we are inflicting. Both those who have worked on Nauru, and those trapped there, have spoken out movingly and bravely.

Breaking minds

To watch someone break over a period of months was a different thing altogether. To see eyes go from shining to dull, to watch shoulders slowly droop and hang, as if the arms themselves were too heavy. To [see] a man … become a hopeless case, no longer even angry enough to fight against the injustice of it all, was something I’d never seen. That’s what I saw as a doctor on Nauru working for International Health and Medical Services (IHMS).

– Dr Nick Martin

This is what we know. There are increasing incidents of self-harm and spiralling mental health problems. People, including young children, repeatedly try to kill or harm themselves. They have tried to do so by pouring petrol on themselves, drinking washing-up liquid, hanging themselves, and setting their houses on fire. At least two people have suicided, one by lighting himself on fire in front of UN officials.

A 26-year-old Iranian, Fariborz Karami, who had been severely traumatised when he was held captive as a 10-year-old child in Iran, suicided. His mother, who had written repeated letters seeking help for her children, and his 12-year-old brother were hospitalised afterwards.
Omid Masoumali, a 23-year-old man from Iran, set himself on fire during a UN monitoring visit in protest at his indefinite detention. He waited several hours for painkillers and treatment. His transfer was delayed and he died several days later. Shortly after, a 19-year-old woman also set herself on fire. She was airlifted to Australia.

Depression, anxiety, short-term memory less, bedwetting, nightmares, and anti-social behaviour is widespread, and is treated mostly through sedation. Over 80% of people have been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma and depression. Those who have seen this suffering say it is worse than anything they have seen, including in war zones. This is suffering that Australia is responsible for.

As many medical organisations have pointed out, you cannot treat the mental health condition without addressing the context of prolonged detention that is causing or compounding that condition. As the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists put it, trying to treat mental illness while somebody is in this situation, ‘is like trying to fill the bath with the plug out’.

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