Australian Politics

Manus Island and Nauru: Australia’s Shame

Sarah Jeffrey takes a look at the health crisis of refugees and asylum seekers who have been kept on Manus Island and Nauru under Australia's current immigration policy.

Please be aware that this article discusses death, suicide and mental health issues, and may be upsetting. If you need help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or access their online crisis support chat at  

This article was first published in our 2018 print edition.

Reza Barati. Sayed Ibrahim Hussein. Hamid Kehazaei. Omid Masoumali. Rakib Khan. Kamil Hussain. Faysal Ishak Ahmed. Hamed Shamshiripour. Rajeev Rajendran. Salim Kyawning. Fariborz Karami.

These are the names of the refugees and asylum seekers who have died since the start of 2014 at the offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru9. Causes of death range from drowning, to sepsis, to suicide. How much longer do we pretend that offshore detention, and the way our politicians deal with it, isn’t a national shame?

In the first six months of this year, eight cases were brought before Australian courts10, with legal representatives of dangerously unwell children on Nauru arguing they must be brought to Australia for immediate medical treatment, as insisted by their doctors. The Department of Home Affairs, led by Peter Dutton, lost every single one of these cases, either by conceding defeat before the case could be heard or by Australian judges ruling in favour of the child.

One by one, critically unwell children in offshore detention are receiving the medical care they require in Australia. How many of these cases have you heard of?

Perhaps the most well-known of these cases is that of a 10-year old boy, known in court documents only as AYX18, who made repeated attempts to kill himself while on Nauru8. The boy fled Iran in 2013 with his mother and father, and arrived in Australia by boat in July that year. The family were legally recognised as refugees in 2014; that is, they had a well-founded fear of persecution in Iran and thus should have been accorded protection by Australia under international law.

In late 2013, the boy began to suffer from night terrors and suicidal ideation, and his parents repeatedly raised concerns about his health. Since then, his mental health problems progressively became worse. He attempted suicide at least twice, firstly by drug overdose and, on a separate occasion, by trying to strangle himself.

He was recommended for transfer to Australia for medical treatment in July 2017. This was rejected that December. Then, finally, in March of this year, lawyers representing the child applied for an injunction to have him brought to Australia to receive acute psychiatric care. Once again, Peter Dutton’s Department of Home Affairs fought against this injunction, arguing that there was enough mental healthcare available on Nauru and asked for the hearing to be delayed by one week.

The court disagreed, ordering that the child immediately be moved to Australia to receive the healthcare he desperately needed. Justice Nye Perram, who presided over the case, stated that “A delay … cannot be justified, there is a significant risk the boy would not be alive by that hearing, and I am not prepared to run that risk.”

That boy is now in Australia with both of his parents and is receiving treatment, thanks to our courts. But there are still children left in offshore detention; children whose mental health is worsening day by day.

Over the past few months, it has been reported that at least six children in Nauru have a rare mental illness known as resignation syndrome2. These children are living across a number of places in Nauru, including tents in the camp, in the community, and in the Regional Processing Centre, according to a health professional who has recently worked on the island.

Dr Louise Newman, a psychiatry professor, described resignation syndrome as a severe state of withdrawal that overly stressed children may enter into, telling reporter Lane Sainty that “It’s usually been found in situations where there’s no sense of safety around them and they’re traumatised. It’s like going into hibernation.”

“This is one way that children will respond in this situation, if it’s extreme enough. It’s about the severity of the situation that refugees and asylum seekers face within our system of immigration,” Dr Newman also said.

There is no light at the end of the tunnel for these people under Australia’s current immigration policy. The hopelessness of their situation is succinctly put by Dr Nick Martin, who was a senior medical officer on Nauru from November 2016 to August 2017: “They can’t come to Australia, they’re not allowed to go to New Zealand, they can’t go to America, and they’re refugees. They can’t go home.”

Leaked documents compiled by staff on Nauru and obtained by the ABC’s 7.30 programme describe a number of incidents of self-harm by refugee children, including two incidents from June of this year1: a 14-year old girl trying to set herself on fire by dousing herself in petrol and a 10-year old boy ingesting sharp metal objects.

In speaking to the ABC, Dr Vernon Reynolds, who worked as a child psychiatrist in Nauru for almost two years, said “My reports became probably stronger and stronger in their wording, talking about how we’re failing these kids, how we’re neglecting these kids.”

Dr Reynolds was meant to return to work on Nauru in April this year, but said that Australian Border Force officials had asked that he not return, due to some of his statements “potentially putting the [International Health and Medical Services], or potentially the Government, at risk by stating we were neglecting the care of these children.”

Australians need to know what is happening in offshore detention, for this immigration program is being run by our government. This is being done in our names.

The only reason we know some of what is happening to the people that Australia sends to Nauru is because of our news organisations and whistle-blowers from within the system. But of course, there are hurdles standing in the way of this knowledge becoming public.

Such hurdles include the increased costs of visa applications7, with the non-refundable application fee for a single-entry media visa increasing from $200 to $8000 in 2013. Approval is also highly selective, with the ABC, SBS, The Guardian, and Al Jazeera all being repeatedly declined.

And so, the saying goes: out of sight, out of mind.

If these people are kept away from the media, if we cannot hear about what is happening to them, then eventually Australia, and the world, will forget about them and let whatever happens to them, happen.

They might slowly be resettled in the US if they are not originally from countries targeted by Donald Trump’s restrictive immigration ban, or potentially New Zealand, had Jacinda Ardern’s offer not been turned down by both the Nauruan and Australian governments6. Or, stuck in limbo, with no sense of a hopeful future, they may choose to end their suffering, before we can do any worse to them.

The argument that has been repeatedly made for offshore detention, and for turning down New Zealand’s resettlement offer, is that if we allow people to come to Australia by boat to seek asylum (an act that is perfectly legal under international law5), we encourage people smuggling.

This argument has been broadly met with a mix of acceptance and scepticism by the Australian public, alongside questions being raised about the legality of boat turn-backs3 and ‘enhanced screening’ processes conducted at sea, as well as claims of paying people smugglers $40,0004 to return to Indonesian waters and mistreatment of asylum seekers by Australian officials.

Ultimately, however, the general public is not afforded access to much information about the conduct of Operation Sovereign Borders, with the government raising claims of public interest immunity.

Indeed, at a 2013 Senate Inquiry, then-Immigration Minister and now-Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that providing more information about the Operation “would prejudice current and future operations, put people at risk who are involved in our operations, and unnecessarily cause damage to Australia’s national security, defence, and international relations.”

The majority report by the Inquiry raised concerns about the government’s refusal to provide relevant information about Operation Sovereign Borders.

Of course, border security is a key element of our national security and we must protect it, but the maintenance of secure borders should not require sacrificing our humanity. There are alternative pathways; sensible, humane choices that uphold the balance between security and compassion. It is not a choice between opening our borders a la German Chancellor Merkel or letting people rot in indefinite offshore detention.

Whatever the policy question is, the policy answer should never involve knowingly harming innocent, vulnerable people – especially when they are refugee children. Yet this is what is being done on Nauru today. This is being done in our names. This is Australia’s shame.


1ABC News 2018, ‘Refugee children on Nauru are Googling how to kill themselves, whistleblower warns’,

2BuzzFeed News 2018, ‘Australia’s child refugees are suffering a rare psychological illness where they withdraw from the world’,

3Kaldor Centre 2015a, Turning back boats,

4Kaldor Centre 2015b, Paying people smugglers,

5Parliament of Australia 2015, Asylum seekers and refugees: what are the facts?,

6SBS News 2018, ‘Nauru, Australia rejected NZ’s refugee offer: PM’,

7Sydney Morning Herald 2016, ‘Journalists must be allowed to visist Nauru’,

8The Guardian 2018a, ‘Court orders that boy, 10, at risk of suicide on Nauru be treated in Australia’,

9The Guardian 2018b, ‘Deaths in offshore detention: the faces of the people who have died in Australia’s care’,

10The Guardian 2018c, ‘Each time Australia delays bringing a sick child from Nauru, the stakes get higher’,


Cover image from Flickr.

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