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In the hell of Nauru, the prison island for migrants from Australia

While the United Nations has just adopted a text on migrants completely emptied of its substance during the negotiations, the case of the Australian island of Nauru is a cruel reminder of the urgency of the situation.

Nearly 1200 people were forced to settle on this island. Men, women and children who must coexist with the inhabitants of the tiny nation. For several years, it has been one of the pillars of Australian migration policy: sending all refugees who try to reach the country by sea to Nauru, in exchange for a substantial sum of money paid to the government of island-nation.

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Without taking into account the immense human cost that this represents, as revealed by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

A prison island of 21 km²

The Republic of Nauru is a very small nation of 21 km², 11 less than Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport, off the coast of Papua New Guinea. It is one of the smallest parliamentary democracies in the world. This island of 10,000 inhabitants, once rich thanks to the phosphate of its basements, is now ruined by 40 years of intensive mining which has made the interior of the land uninhabitable or uncultivable. The employment rate is low, as is the level of education or the health system.

Google maps allows you to locate the Republic of Nauru

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This is where the Australians, since September 2012, pile up the refugees and asylum seekers who seek to reach them by sea. It is in exchange for 415 million Australian dollars per year, or 284 million euros, that Nauru welcomes these “prisoners”.

Between people who have been granted refugee status without being able to leave the island –, those who are still waiting and those who will not have it, the number of asylum seekers on the island amounts to more of 1,500 people, or 15% of the total population. They are housed either in the regional treatment center (CRT), or in barracks or old refitted containers, in deplorable conditions. These refugees come from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Bangladesh, Kuwait, Afghanistan…

Australia is aware of the situation, having been warned on several occasions by several bodies such as its own human rights commission or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, they have not changed anything in their policy for 4 years, coldly noting the effectiveness of this maneuver, which deters many migrants from going to Australia.

The “CRT”, disguised prison

The Regional Processing Center is the entry point for asylum seekers on the island of Nauru. This complex is ultimately more like a prison than a refugee camp: strictly regulated, it limits showers to one a day, lasting two minutes, while temperatures under the large tents serving as shelter regularly reach 45 or even 50 degrees Celsius.

If a relaxation of the rules took place after a first scandal, in 2015, including in particular increased freedom of movement, it could not hide the prison side of the center. Regular searches take place, prohibited items being confiscated (such as food or sewing needles), while the sanitary facilities are in a deplorable state of hygiene.

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The interior of one of the CRT tents, photographed on a smartphone (2016 Private)

The two governments keep a tight lid on what happens there, refusing most requests from journalists or researchers. The employees of the two private companies employed in the center can also be prosecuted if they reveal the slightest information.

Facebook is blocked on the island, refugee demonstrations criminalized… A total opacity reinforcing the idea that this island has become a prison.

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“The Definition of Torture”

More than the place itself, subject to extreme temperatures and precipitation without real protection, it is the services offered that are shocking.

The care provided to migrants is insufficient, even though their living conditions are precisely conducive to the development of illnesses or mental disorders.

Refugee children stand in protest at a March 2015 demonstration upon their return to Nauru and decry living conditions on the island (2016 Private)

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Former employees of International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), the company paid by the Australian government to look after the health of refugees, have repeatedly condemned the conditions of the refugees’ captivity.

Dr. Peter Young, former head of psychiatry for IHMS, is one of them. He confided in the “Guardian”:

“If you take the definition of torture as deliberately inflicting pain on someone for the purpose of forcing them to do something, I believe that [la situation] matches the definition.”

Thus, several refugees testify to their distress in the face of the doctors’ lack of reaction to their sometimes obvious ailments.

A young man with diabetes who had lost 27 kilos told Amnesty International and HRW researchers that the doctor was not surprised by any other measure of his situation, explaining that it was “normal” and that she was not would only become “moderately worrisome” if the weight loss continued (the patient’s family was able to record these responses).

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helpless doctors

Even once the disease is diagnosed, few treatments are available on the island, and it often takes several months before products are ordered or a transfer to a more competent hospital takes place (often to Papua). New Guinea, sometimes to Australia). And again, such transfers can be the start of a new ordeal.

Often involving only the patient and not their family – in a way, according to health service workers, “to force patients back to Nauru”) – these transfers seem to be decided overnight and done in the most haste. total.

Health conditions and infrastructure on the island are dire (2016 Private)

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Even more traumatic, returning to Nauru can be humiliating:

“They handcuffed my wife and me and explained to us that we were going back to Nauru, says a man sent with his pregnant wife to Australia for the delivery. My wife was not ready, not dressed, she was sleeping. […] They took us at 7 am, separating us from the baby. We didn’t see him again until 7 o’clock in the evening.”

These transfers are often made against all medical advice, but the doctors do not seem to have any influence on the decisions of the immigration services. Some patients wait several months on the island before obtaining a sometimes life-saving transfer, before returning less than a year later, without having been able to complete the recommended treatment.

suicidal thoughts

In addition to these illnesses, there are especially mental health problems, which are on the increase on the island. The refugees interviewed complained of suffering from anxiety, insomnia, mood swings, depression and loss of short-term memory. Children also suffer from it, victims of nightmares or starting to wet their beds. Above all, suicidal thoughts are frequent among residents of the island, adults and children alike. And no form of psychological support exists on Nauru.

Some cases end tragically. Thus, Hodan Yasin, a young Somali, is considered suicidal when she is sent to Australia for treatment. But a few months later, she must return to Nauru, where she is supposed to be watched 24 hours a day. But despite this custody, she manages to flee, buy gasoline, then set herself on fire, becoming the symbol of refugees from Nauru.

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Security not guaranteed

Finally, the threat also comes from outside for the refugees. The inhabitants of the island have developed a certain animosity towards them, without the police or the security forces really reacting.

A woman asylum seeker victim of violence by the inhabitants of the island (2016 Anna Neistat/Amnesty International)

“We can really ask ourselves the question of independence [de la police] and their desire to investigate complaints against locals accused of assaulting non-locals” said in July 2015 Geoffrey Eames, former Chief Justice of Nauru.

Since his declarations, the visa of this Australian has been revoked. But this has not helped to reduce the violence or attempted rape that asylum seekers repeatedly suffer, even in schools, 85% of refugee children having stopped going to school following cases of harassment.

And after?

The situation on Nauru, although disastrous and known to the authorities, does not seem to worry them too much. The refugees on the island still do not know what their future will be like.

While their stay was not to exceed one year, it has sometimes been more than five years that people are there. While some, a very small number, were eventually sent to Cambodia, others decided to return to their country, believing that it was always better than their situation on the island.

Australia, for its part, still has no intention of changing its policy.

Martin Lavielle

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