Mental health crisis engulfs Nauru

Nauru is in meltdown with an epidemic of mental illness and medical problems among children. Yet Peter Dutton has revealed his hypocrisy in granting visas to two au pairs, while forcing critically ill children to languish on Nauru without medical help.

Onshore, the suicide of 22-year-old Sarwan Aljhelie in Yongah Hill detention centre in Western Australia prompted a fire and riot there, from those outraged at the government’s abject failure of duty of care. Meanwhile, a Melbourne protest has demanded an end to the deportation of Tamil asylum seekers and Biloela residents marched on Peter Dutton’s Brisbane office to demand Priya, Nades and their children be allowed to stay.

There has been a shocking rise in self-harm in children on Nauru. One 12-year-old doused herself in petrol, and a 10-year-old attempted to swallow metal wire. A rare condition called “traumatic withdrawal syndrome” or “resignation syndrome” has seen a number of children starving themselves nearly to death. They have been withdrawing from life, some entering a catatonic state in which they stop eating, talking, responding to pain or interacting with people at all.

Legal action in the Federal Court has managed to get over 30 children, sometimes with their families (as well as a small number of single adults) off Nauru and to medical care Australia in the last few months. Doctors have issued recommendations for around half of the 100 or so children left on Nauru to be moved off the island.

Yet Border Force continues to stall on moving them. By mid-September, doctors had issued half a dozen warnings that a 12-year-old refugee who had made numerous suicide attempts was at grave risk, yet Border Force has kept her on Nauru.

Conditions on the island are spiralling down, with every single child on Nauru suffering some form of mental distress.

Nauruan authorities worked hard to make sure human rights abuses were covered up during the Pacific Islands Forum in early September. Tents that had housed refugees for five years were dismantled, ABC journalists were banned, while Canstruct and HOST staff were locked down in the RPC1 administration compound to prevent contact with any media. The most senior IHMS doctor on the island also had his visa revoked and was deported before the Forum began.

One New Zealand journalist was detained for hours after attempting to speak to refugees. But the truth continues to leak out. Healthcare workers spoke out on ABC’s 7.30 about children in crisis and women denied abortion rights. Even Former Australian Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg has joined those condemning the conditions on Nauru.

No resolution

More children and families are set to get court orders to come to Australia, as the government’s refusal to bring the refugees to Australia has left the government with no way out of the crisis it has created.

Every court order deepens the crisis for the government and renders offshore processing more unsustainable.

The failure of third country resettlement is clear. With Trump halving the refugee intake this year, and implementing racist travel bans, progress on the US resettlement deal is glacial. And nearly half of the refugees on Nauru are banned from the US due to their nationality. This failure, particularly the rejections of Iranians, has worsened the despair on Nauru, with refugees feeling this glimmer of hope has been crushed.

Human rights groups are backing World Vision’s #KidsOffNauru campaign, demanding all children be removed from the island by 20 November. A recent poll found that 67 per cent believe the Australian government should do so.

The Coalition government is unravelling. But Bill Shorten and Labor still refuse to evacuate Nauru and Manus Island by bringing the refugees and asylum seekers to Australia. The urgency is growing for action in workplaces, universities, and on the streets. The outrage about offshore detention needs to be channelled into a mass movement that is powerful enough to demand everyone be removed from Australia’s gulags and brought to safety in Australia.

By Sophie Cotton


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