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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Desperation and suicide stalk refugees on Australia's 'Pacific gulag'

Desperate people prevented from reaching Australian shores spend years trapped in a camp on the island of Nauru

A camp for detained asylum seekers on the Pacific island of Nauru. AFP
A camp for detained asylum seekers on the Pacific island of Nauru. AFP

Refugee settlement camp number five, a cluster of prefabricated huts poking out of Nauru's sweltering rocky landscape, is a place defined by desperation and rarely visited by outsiders.

Access to the weed-infested camp is severely restricted. The residents are there against their will, the subjects of a controversial deal between this island's government and the Australian authorities, keen to prevent boatpeople setting foot on their shores.

Most are asylum seekers who tried to reach Australia by sea but were detained and processed in compounds run by the Nauru government and paid for by Canberra under its hardline immigration policy.

A swastika spray-painted on a large water tank alongside initials "ABF" make clear the inhabitants' views on the Australian Border Force, which helps oversee them.

Many are willing to speak only on condition of anonymity, but they describe existence on this remote speck of land in the South Pacific as devoid of hope and filled with a desperation that has driven some to attempt suicide.

A Sri Lankan refugee interned on the Pacific island of Nauru. AFP
A Sri Lankan refugee interned on the Pacific island of Nauru. AFP

A refugee from Iran worries about himself, but above all about his children.

His daughter, 12, once doused herself in petrol and threatened to set herself alight after struggling to cope with spending almost half her life on Nauru.

"She took the lighter, she was screaming 'Leave me alone! Leave me alone! I want to kill myself, I want to die'," he said.

He managed to seize the lighter from her hands, but the despair that drove the girl to attempt suicide still hangs over this family of four.

Her 13-year-old brother says in a monotone: "I have no school, I have no future, I have no life."

Somali asylum-seeker Khadar Hrisi watches over his depressed wife, afraid to even sleep because of her repeated suicide attempts, including one just a few days earlier.

He took her to the nearest hospital, which is funded by Australia, but they received little help.

"Last night, they called the police and they kicked us [out of] ... the hospital," he says.

Khadar Hrisi​​​​​, a Somali refugee on Nauru who says his wife has become suicidal. AFP
Khadar Hrisi​​​​​, a Somali refugee on Nauru who says his wife has become suicidal. AFP

Refugees say medical services are usually overwhelmed because so many of them suffer from psychological illnesses.

Nauru's 900 detainees, including 100 children, often wait years to find out if they have been accepted as genuine refugees.

Even if they are, Australia still refuses to take them, leaving refugees stranded in the settlement camps, unable to leave the 21 square kilometre island they regard as an open-air prison.

A Refugee Council of Australia report last week claimed many detainees' mental health was buckling because they could see no end to their plight.

"Those who have seen this suffering say it is worse than anything they have seen, including in war zones ... people are broken," the report stated.

Rights activists say detainees endure harsh conditions including substandard housing in scorching heat, with reports also detailing allegations of physical and sexual abuse.

Reporters Without Borders in August described the camp as a "Pacific gulag" and "Australia's Guantanamo".

Canberra denies mistreatment and says offshore processing is needed to stop deaths occurring when people smugglers cram asylum seekers into rickety boats for the treacherous voyage to Australia.

Nauru President Baron Waqa dismissed the mental health fears and insisted refugees can move freely around the island.

"They're provided all the services that are available to the Nauruans and we live together very happily," he told reporters.

But detainees say their relations with Nauruans are deteriorating and claim they have faced violence and burglary at the hands of locals.

The camp is an economic lifeline for Nauru, which has a population of 11,000 and scant natural resources.

However, some Nauruans say they have yet to see any benefits from the Australian-bankrolled camps, with one young man saying: "We do not know where this money goes."

Many Nauruans live in dire conditions themselves and do not understand why the detainees are complaining.

Refugees say they would be ready to move anywhere, as long as it meant their search for a home was finally over.

"The Australian government has stolen five years of our life," said the Iranian father whose daughter attempted suicide and whose son spends his days in depressed resignation.

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Read more:

Australia's ‘accidental PM’ made his name by turning back refugees

Iranian asylum-seeker's death preventable: Australia court

Thousands march across Australian cities to protest refugee detention policy

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