Children in Australia’s offshore migrant center are so distraught, some have attempted suicide

Children in Australia’s offshore migrant center are so distraught, some have attempted suicide

By Siobhán O’Grady | September 20

They’ve come from as far as Iran and Afghanistan, Somalia and Myanmar.

But the children are now stuck on Nauru, a desolate island in the South Pacific that’s little more than eight miles square. They’re caught in a strict Australian immigration system that has left them stranded. Some of them have become so depressed after years of living in limbo that they have lost their will to live, those working with them say.

About 100 children live on Nauru, one of the remote islands where Australia operates offshore processing centers for migrants. They’ve been there for so long that “several children have lost all hope to the point that they are no longer speaking or eating,” Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Center in Melbourne, told The Washington Post this week.

“Even some of the government’s most senior medical advisers are warning that children may die,” he said. “It’s a miracle one hasn’t died already.”

When they left home, their families were hoping to reach Australia, where many planned to apply for asylum. But in 2013, Australian authorities changed their migration policy, authorizing the detention of migrants and asylum seekers who try to reach Australia by boat. Instead of being allowed into Australia, they are placed, apparently indefinitely, on Nauru, or Manus Island, which is part of Papua New Guinea.

Once sent offshore, asylum seekers have little hope of ever reaching Australia. They don’t want to return to where they came from, but they often don’t have anywhere else to go. Devastated by extensive phosphate strip mining, about 80 percent of the island is uninhabitable with much of the marine life killed by mining runoff. The weather is hot and humid year around.

Medical and human rights professionals have said publicly that in the face of this uncertainty, a number of asylum-seeking children on Nauru have developed health problems, including a condition known as “resignation syndrome.” This dangerous medical condition has been recorded in other asylum-seeking populations, notably in Sweden. It can be brought on by trauma and stress. Those who develop the syndrome essentially stop communicating with the outside world. They struggle to eat, drink and speak. They have trouble opening their eyes, and in extreme cases, lose consciousness and can require a feeding tube. Last week, the Guardian reported that about a dozen children on Nauru are refusing food and drink.

In the past year, Webb said, more than 30 critically ill children were evacuated from detention on Nauru and taken to Australia for “urgent medical care.” But he said the Australian government has resisted such evacuations unless it is legally forced to comply. “Many of these cases have involved children who have repeatedly attempted suicide or who have become withdrawn and stopped eating or drinking,” Webb said.

Recently, a 12-year-old girl on Nauru attempted to set herself on fire, and a court ordered that a 10-year-old boy, who had tried several times to kill himself, receive treatment in Australia.

In an email, a spokesman for the Australian Department of Home Affairs said the Australian government has provided “significant support” to Nauru for health and welfare services.

“A range of care, welfare and support arrangements are in place to provide for the needs of refugee children and young people,” the spokesman said. “Service providers are contracted to provide age-appropriate health, education, recreational and cultural services.”A refugee from Somalia, who had attempted suicide, does kitchen chores at Camp Five on the Pacific island of Nauru on Sept. 2. (Mike Leyral/AFP/Getty Images) (MIKE LEYRAL/AFP/Getty Images)

But there have been increasing calls for Australia to reassess its offshore processing policy, which Australian officials have said is necessary to curb migration. On Thursday, The Guardian reported that the president of the Australian Medical Association wrote to Australia’s new prime minister, Scott Morrison, calling the physical and mental health conditions for families on Nauru “a humanitarian emergency requiring urgent intervention.”

In the letter, Tony Bartone urged the prime minister to change the country’s policy. “There are now too many credible reports concerning the effects of long-term detention and uncertainty on the physical and mental health of asylum seekers,” he wrote.

But Morrison, who previously served as immigration minister, has historically taken a tough line on migration. As the New York Times reported this month, he keeps a small model of a boat in his office. The words “I stopped these” are engraved on its side. It was a gift from a constituent. Papua New Guinea police order refugees to leave Australia-run detention center

In June, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton warned that “a single act of compassion,” such as bringing people out of the island detention centers would fuel more migrants to board boats and try to reach Australia. “The boats haven’t gone away, and if there is a success defined by an arrival of a boat in Australia, then the word will spread like wildfire,” he told the Weekend Australian.

In Nauru, the government has suggested that children who have fallen ill are doing so at the encouragement of their parents and other adults coaching them on how to get to Australia. In an interview with Sky News in August, Nauru President Baron Waqa said children are “working the system, probably short-circuiting it, just to get to Australia.”

Medical professionals publicly pushed back against those claims. Webb insists that the scale of human suffering on Nauru is severe.

“They’ve been surrounded by misery for the last five years,” Webb said. Some of the children “have never known a day of freedom in their lives.”

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Why are 300,000 Icelanders a nation but 30 million Nigerian Igbos are a tribe?

Why are 300,000 Icelanders a nation but 30 million Nigerian Igbos are a tribe?

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Some months ago, I was buying fabric from a woman trader in Nigeria. I was offered a seat, which I took, the mark of a serious buyer.

We began discussing the types of fabric I wanted. She was bubbly, a great conversationalist. “In my other life, I am a teacher,” she said. This was her weekend job. “I am a teaching trader, not a trading teacher,” she said. “Teaching is my first love although it does not pay all the bills.”

My accent betrayed the fact that I was not local, she said, asking laughingly where I was from. “Kenya,” I said proudly.

“Oh Kenya! That is good-o. I enjoy teaching Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s books, I have also read Grace Ogot,” she said.

Our schools and universities teach Chinua Achebe, Elechi Amadi and Wole Soyinka’s books too, I said.

“Is it not such a good way to learn about the existence of diverse people, with different beliefs and opinions within Africa,” we mused, discussing our joint love for books as she sorted out the fabric.

She then hesitated, and I realised she was struggling to say something. I identified with what I imagined were her thoughts as she debated the pricing of the fabric in her mind, wondering, now that she knew I was not local, should she give me a foreigners’ or a local price? I smiled encouragingly, silently communicating, I hoped, that our connection as African sisters made me qualify for the local price.

But no, that was not it. “My question is related to something we have been discussing in the staffroom,” she said as my eyebrows lifted in surprise.

Above the hum of the generators and din of noisy calls to passing customers from neighbouring traders, she exhaled. The sentence that had been gathering momentum came out of her mouth, rushing at me with the suddenness of a flash flood: “IsyourtribeKikuyuorLuo”?

I immediately recognised the question for what it was. Our elections, which had been violent, had just ended. It is a question even we Kenyans had asked of Rwandans, “Are you Hutu or Tutsi”? Or to South Sudanese, “Are you Dinka or Nuer”? Or to Nigerians, “Are you Fulani or Berom, or are you Christian or Muslim”? Or for Somalis, “What is your clan?”

Ethnic profiling

In some instances, this could qualify as ethnic profiling. In this case, my assumption was that she believed the Luo and Kikuyu were at war with each other during the elections.

Uhuru Kenyatta, Kikuyu, Kenya’s President and Raila Odinga, Luo, former prime minister both children of our founding fathers, first president Jomo Kenyatta and first vice president Jaramogi Odinga Oginga had however recently publicly renounced their differences resulting in what is now known as the “handshake.”

It was an awkward moment; this was a topic we were never taught to talk about by parents and teachers. I didn’t want to come off sounding uninvolved, indifferent or, even worse, a victim.

Was there a middle ground? I wondered. I had taken the seat she offered and encouraged her to tell me about her life. I could not now shut down the conversation with a curt, “What do you mean by asking whether I am Kikuyu or Luo? I am a Kenyan!”

I squirmed in my seat and momentarily evaded the question by asking her; why do you use the word tribe? Because it’s the English word I was taught and I teach, she said.

I then told her that Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in Secure the Base, argues that Africa has been presented as a barbarous counterpart to Western civilisation, with the continent’s nations and communities still described as tribes, with connotations of the primitive inherent in the term. He gives an example: The 300,000 Icelanders are considered to constitute a nation but 30 million Nigerian Igbos are said to make up a tribe, which would be comic, if it did not have such tragic consequences.


Building up to the question the teaching trader had asked me, I told her that the research I had quoted pointed to an explanation of African politics through an ethnic lens implying expressly that our problems were intractable and written into our biological make up as “tribes.”

This thinking translated into the Luo and Kikuyu not being seen as individuals but as people belonging to a tribal world of savagery and primitive practices that are deep, natural and ancient.

“So what word should we use instead of tribe?” the perplexed teaching trader asked me, piling fabric on my lap, telling me that she had noted my preference for yellow and purple and smaller patterns in the fabrics I was choosing.

“I do not know any African who does not use the word tribe to describe themselves or who objects to being depicted as a tribesman or tribeswoman or whose culture is not defined as tribal,” she said.

“Yet now, after listening to you, I do not know why we describe ourselves that way. When you first began to tell me about it, I thought you were trying to be politically correct. But now I too wonder. How is it that only some people in the world belong to tribes and others do not? This is an interesting question I will raise in the staffroom,” she added.

Nationality, ethnic community or group, would do, I told her. We were now walking towards the road as she escorted me to the taxi, my purchases, which she had assured me were for a local price, balanced on her head.

“But why do you, as an African, think that the term ethnic group as a replacement for tribe is good?” The teaching trader asked me.

“Because it embraces a pluralistic definition that accepts that we are all different types of people, who have different beliefs and opinions, yet live within the same society. Pluralism is also the belief that the existence of different types of people within the same society is a good thing,” I said.

“What about words that come from tribe such as tribalism?” she asked. I told her I use “ethnicism” instead of “tribalism.” Ethnicism is defined as an ideology focusing on the superiority of one generally narrow ethnic or national group.

Some people use the term “negative ethnicity” but that too cannot be correct because ethnicity cannot be either negative or positive. Ethnicity is simply a form of identity. And every human being adopts at least one if not several identities.

We exchanged telephone numbers and hugged. As I settled in the taxi, my new friend said to me, “Greet your family and tell them you made a friend in Nigeria. I must call you to follow up on this conversation. Because when I explain what we discussed to my fellow teachers in the staffroom on Monday, they will surely want to know whether you are Luo or Kikuyu.”

Alice Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism: Exploring Ethnic and Racial Diversity for Educators and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides, A Commissioner’s Experience on Cohesion and Integration[email protected]

Read Alice Nderitu’s here.