Breaking up families
The depth of despair and hopelessness was echoed to us by a single mother with four children this week in Nauru. Separated from her mother, sister and brother in Australia, she told UNHCR, “I feel that I am in a deep, dark well screaming for help and no one can hear me.”
– Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR
An especially cruel part of offshore processing is the way it breaks up families. Around 35 people are thought to be split between families across Nauru, PNG and Australia, and in October 2017 there were nine nuclear families split across those countries. Some of these separations were caused because people who came by boat after another family member were caught up by the hardening of the offshore processing policy on an arbitrary date, 19 July 2013.
One woman, having fled her country due to a well-founded fear that her youngest children would be taken from her, arrived in Australia just one week after her adult daughters. The irony of their prolonged family separation, by the 19 July deadline that feels so arbitrary, does not escape her. Suffering from severe depression, she speaks with her family in Melbourne most days but does not leave the three-room demountable. She is not asking for much. “I am old,” she says. “I only wanted a small life … my family. I have no hope left.
– Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR
Separating a person from their family is standard practice when a person is transferred for medical treatment, especially since 2016 (discussed below). Women give birth in Australia without their partners; children are left behind when their parents are transferred. Increasingly, that separation is indefinite, too.
Nasreen and her daughter Mahboubeh have been in Australia since 2014 for medical treatment, while her children Daryoush and Narges live in Nauru. Narges has attempted suicide twice, and both have serious mental and physical health issues. Nasreen’s husband, Mohammad, who came to Australia in 2011, has not seen his two children in Nauru for seven years, and is banned from living with his wife and daughter in Australia.
The effect on children suffering family separation is profound. It not only affects their mental health but also their sense of identity and safety. Parents who have been separated from their children speak of their inability to bond with their children after they are reunited, as their children believe they had abandoned them. Some children also blame themselves, thinking they have done something wrong.
A woman whose husband had been transferred to Australia for urgent medical treatment said that their nine-year-old son had repeatedly talked about suicide after the family had been separated:
Two weeks ago, my son took the lighter. He said, ‘I want to burn myself. Why should I be alive? I want my daddy. I miss my daddy.’