As of 29 August 2018, an estimated 109 children are held on Nauru. The ASRC and National Justice Project, among other legal partners, together have secured the transfer of 25 critically ill children through legal action, either through a court order or because the government conceded to legal pressure.
The details are especially harrowing when we look at the children of Nauru. We have heard of children swallowing razor blades and stones, trying to overdose, hanging themselves, attempting to jump from high places and dousing themselves in petrol. Children are hallucinating, withdrawing socially, repeatedly expressing a wish to die, unable to speak or speaking in a flat tone, and live in constant fear. Many bang their heads and bodies regularly and repeatedly against walls in their distress. The former director of mental health services on Nauru, Dr Peter Young, has said that offshore detention amounts to torture.
These children cannot be treated on Nauru, as there are no inpatient mental health facilities for children. Instead, those children who repeatedly attempt suicide are locked into small compounds and watched by security officers, who physically restrain them to prevent them from harming themselves in their distress. The causes of this are also well-documented: the compounding effects of prolonged detention, including feelings of hopelessness and helplessness; pre-existing trauma; separation from families; and bullying and harassment and feeling unsafe in the local community.
Children have also been physically and sexually assaulted by those paid to protect them. There have been reports of incidents of centre staff sexually assaulting a child, choking a child, hitting at and spitting on children, and other physical assaults and threats to children. Nauru is not equipped to deal with child abuse, with an official report finding that responses to child abuse were inadequate in just under 70% of cases, while 20% of incidents couldn’t even be reviewed because of lack of data. Despite Nauru belatedly developing a child protection system in 2016, UNICEF has concluded offshore processing cannot be in the best interests of a child.
Yet the abuse of children is now at fever pitch. In 2018, reports began surfacing that children on Nauru were developing a rare psychiatric condition called ‘Traumatic Withdrawal Syndrome’ (also known as ‘resignation syndrome’). Professor Louise Newman, former government advisor and psychiatrist, has explained that:
Traumatic Withdrawal Syndrome is found in children exposed to ongoing trauma where they feel hopeless and helpless resulting in a giving up on engagement with the world. There is an urgent need for treatment with a medical and mental health team in a high level hospital facility with capacity for intensive care, re-feeding and support for psychological recovery.
Yet the Australian Government has resisted transferring these children to Australia for treatment. Health workers on Nauru say there are 50 requests for overseas medical transfers that Australian Border Force are actively blocking. Courts are ordering the transfer of children in catastrophic circumstances. Since December 2017, 25 people have been transferred to Australia as a result of legal intervention, all suffering life-threatening symptoms.
These actions have been necessary as the Australian Government continually rejects medical advice and refuses to process doctors’ requests for transfers. As Dr Vernon Reynolds, a child psychiatrist and whistleblower, said:
I treated severely unwell children that I repeatedly recommended for transfer to a specialist hospital. Instead they were left for months to deteriorate further. Such neglect cannot be justified and is morally and ethically wrong.
The following is a list of publicly reported cases of children with life-threatening mental and physical symptoms. The ASRC has a record of all incidents of critically ill children transferred for emergency medical care to Australia.
[table “104” not found /]
Children have also stopped going to school, in the face of bullying and harassment by local children and their teachers. Service providers estimated in 2016 that, since the closure of the Save the Children school in mid-2015, only about 5-15% of children were attending school. Amnesty International reported that no child was attending school by September 2016.
All the kids at school, they say, ‘Refugee, refugee, refugee.’ They don’t say our names. They hit us. And when we try to talk to the teachers, they don’t say, ‘Why are you Nauruan kids hitting the other kids?’ They say to us, ‘Why are you fighting with the Nauruan kids?’ We try to explain, but they don’t listen.
– Child on Nauru