PHNOM PENH (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Children detained by Australia on the Pacific island of Nauru are suffering mentally and some attempting suicide, according to human rights groups and refugees who appealed to a regional leaders meeting on Wednesday to resettle them elsewhere.
Australia sends people intercepted at sea while trying to reach its shores to offshore centers including on Nauru, an island with a population of just over 11,000, where leaders have gathered this week for the Pacific Islands Forum.
About 900 people are on Nauru, including 109 children, according to a report this week by the Refugee Council of Australia.
Some of them are suffering traumatic withdrawal syndrome which means “giving up on engagement with the world”, the Refugee Council of Australia said in its report.
“Children as young as seven and 12 are experiencing repeated incidents of suicide attempts, dousing themselves in petrol, and becoming catatonic,” the advocacy group said in a statement.
Australia’s home affairs department rejected the report, saying a “range of care, welfare and support arrangements are in place to provide for the needs of children and young people”.
But refugees told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that mental health care on the island is inadequate and children are suffering because they have lost all hope for the future.
One mother of two children – including a baby born on Nauru – said she fled Iran after her father was jailed and her brother was “killed by the government”.
Her boat was intercepted and she was sent to Nauru in 2013, along with her son who is now 12 years old.
“He doesn’t eat and he stays at home all the time in the room and doesn’t go out. I am so worried about him,” said the mother, speaking via the social messaging application Telegram anonymously due to security fears.
Another woman said there was no work on Nauru, except for “simple jobs for people for a short time,” and those sent there were just waiting for their fate to be decided by Australia.
“Even a prisoner knows what crime they did and how long they will stay in jail … we don’t know anything,” said the woman who fled Iran due to political persecution, by phone.
Both women urged Australia to reconsider an offer reiterated last month by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to resettle 150 refugees.
“We have been suffering for five years. Please, that’s enough. We can’t take it anymore,” said the mother of two.
Australia declined New Zealand’s offer last November, because it was negotiating with the United States to accept 1,250 migrants. About 250 people sent to Nauru and Papua New Guinea have so far left for the United States.
Australia stands firm by its policy to detain asylum seekers in offshore centers, saying it has deterred people from making dangerous sea journeys and this stance has support at home where immigration is a sensitive issue for voters.
As of March 31, there were 1,305 people in four offshore camps from countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.
“The Australian government’s position has not changed; these individuals will never settle permanently in Australia,” the home affairs department said in its statement on Monday.
Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, is attending the annual gathering of 18 Pacific nations in Nauru as is Ardern