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The hell of the refugees relegated by Australia to a Pacific island

In Nauru, a tiny island in the Pacific, refugees relegated by Australia tell of a life without perspective, without care and without hope. Reportage.

Nauru, the smallest island country in the world, has just hosted the Pacific Islands Forum but has banned journalists from the detention camps where Canberra turns back illegal immigrants trying to reach Australia by sea. However, AFP managed to enter and meet refugees, almost all of whom wished to remain anonymous for security reasons. In Nauru, nearly a thousand migrants, including a hundred children, out of 11,000 inhabitants, live in eight camps financed by Canberra, some for five yearsaccording to their stories.

Psychological problems

In camp number 5, which can be reached at a bend in the path in overwhelming heat, in a landscape bristling with rocky peaks, the Somalian Hrisi wants to testify with his face uncovered. He is no longer afraid, he no longer has anything. His wife does not speak, her face is expressionless. Mr. Hrisi leaves her alone as little as possible, because of her depression. She has attempted suicide several times in recent days, he says. “When I woke up she was breaking that“, he said, showing disposable razor blades. “She was going to swallow them with waterMr Hrisi says they have been to the Australian-funded hospital in Nauru several times but they are refusing to treat them. The other night, “they called the police and told us kicked out”.

Camp number 1 treats the sick, the refugees say. But it only accommodates about fifty people because the place is overwhelmed with requests. However, many migrants are in bad shape and suffer from psychological problems linked to their isolation on the island. Medical evacuations to Australia are rare, they say.

Indefinite detention

NGOs continue to denounce Australia’s draconian immigration policy. Since 2013, Canberra, which denies any ill-treatment, systematically pushes back at sea all boats of illegal immigrants, many originating from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the Middle East. Those who manage to slip through the cracks are sent to remote islands in the Pacific. Even if their asylum request is deemed legitimate, they will never be welcomed on Australian soil. Canberra argues that it saves lives by dissuading migrants from undertaking a perilous journey. The arrivals of boats, which used to be almost daily, are extremely rare today.

The Refugee Council of Australia and the Asylum Seeker Resource Center recently denounced the psychological ravages of indefinite detention, particularly among children. “Those who have seen this suffering say it is worse than anything they have seen, even in war zones. Children aged seven and twelve have experienced repeated suicide attempts, some douse themselves with gasoline and become catatonic“, they wrote.

A prison island of 21 square kilometers

R, a 12-year-old Iranian met by AFP, attempted to set herself on fire. She has lived in Nauru for five years with her two 42-year-old parents and her 13-year-old brother. Children spend their days prostrate in bed. The mother’s skin is covered in patches, she says she is in pain and receives no treatment. The father recently caught his daughter dozing herself in gasoline. “She took a lighter and she shouted ‘Leave me alone! Leave me alone ! I want to kill myself! I want to die!“. Her son slowly gets out of bed and confides in a monotonous voice: “I have no school, I have no future, I have no life“. Not far from there, between two prefabs, a tank is tagged with the acronym “ABF” and a swastika. The Australian Border Force is Australia’s border control service, hated by refugees. The latter move freely on the island because the prison is its 21 square kilometers.

View of refugee camp 4 in Nauru.


Khadar receives a friend, a former Cameroonian professional goalkeeper who says he rescued a neighbor who was hanging himself. His best friend was found dead, his nose and eyes full of blood, without his knowing the cause of death. No prospects, and no care. Much to the despair of Ahmd Anmesharif, a Burmese whose eyes are constantly running. He says he also suffers from heart disease and spends his days on a moldy foam chair, watching the road.

Appalling conditions

Rights defenders denounce appalling conditions and report accusations of sexual assault and physical abuse. The authorities of the island deny. The refugees “live their lives normally, like other Nauruans (…) we are very happy to live together“, thus assured during the Forum of the Islands the President of Nauru, Baron Waqa.

But the refugees say their relationship with the Nauruans is deteriorating. “They are always hitting us, they are always throwing stones at us,” accuses the Iranian teenager. Another Iranian, a mechanic who managed to set up a small business, shouts his anger. He has just been robbed of “the crate, the motorcycles, the tools”. “Police never find anything when Nauruans rob refugees“, he asserts.

Australian grants

While conditions are dilapidated in the camps, where most accommodation is prefabricated, many Nauruans appear to be living in even more precarious conditions. Many live in tin shacks, the beaches are strewn with rubbish. They say they do not understand what the migrants are complaining about. In the meantime, the camps are crucial for the economy of the island, bloodless since the depletion of phosphate reserves which had contributed to the opulence of the last century.

According to Australian figures, government revenue increased from 20 to 115 million Australian dollars (12 to 72 million euros) between 2010-2011 and 2015-2016, mainly thanks to Australian subsidies linked to the camps. “If we remove the refugees, Nauru is dead: that’s why the president wants us to stay”, judges the Cameroonian. But all the refugees encountered want to leave, some anywhere. “In the 21st century, people think in seconds, in moments. The Australian government stole five years of our lives… who cares?“, regrets the father of the little Iranian.

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