Protesters holding banners march in Sydney to urge the Australian government to end the refugee crisis on Manus Island on November 4, 2017.

© 2017 PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images
Although mounting political pressure has compelled the Australian government to remove most children from Nauru, refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia continue to face significant risks to their physical and mental health.  

Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a powerful speech in October when he said:

"Today, Australia confronts a trauma – an abomination – hiding in plain sight for far too long... Why were the cries of children and parents ignored? Why was our system of justice blind to injustice? Why has it taken so long to act? Why were other things more important than this, the care of innocent children?”

His words were part of an apology to the survivors of child sexual abuse following a Royal Commission into the matter.

Yet today, on Universal Children’s Day, those questions seem equally relevant to the Australian government’s treatment of asylum seeker and refugee children held offshore on the tiny Pacific Island nation of Nauru.

Children on Nauru

Since 2013, Australia has been sending men, women and children who claim asylum and arrive in Australian waters by boat to Nauru. (Men who arrive alone are sent to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea). More than 3,000 people have languished in miserable conditions in closed detention camps on Manus and Nauru.

On both islands, refugees and asylum seekers have reported assaults and harassment by local people. Medical care in both places is grossly inadequate. Many people's mental health has deteriorated dramatically as a result of their forcible transfer and exile to these remote locations: there have been six suicides of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru. According to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), at least 78 of their refugee patients on Nauru have considered or attempted suicide or self-harm. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) found in 2016 that 80 percent of the surveyed population on both islands suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.”

It is hard to fathom how a child as young as 10 could attempt suicide. Yet court documents reveal the physical and mental decline of a 10-year-old boy from Iran on Nauru. His problems were exacerbated following separation from his father, whom authorities transferred to Australia for medical treatment, leaving the boy and his mother on Nauru.

In October 2014, when the boy was six, he threatened to harm himself and had suicidal thoughts. His mental and physical health further deteriorated. In January 2018 he attempted suicide with an overdose of medication. While in the hospital, he attempted to strangle himself with a curtain. Two weeks later, he grabbed a knife, which had to be wrestled from him.

His is not an isolated case. A pre-teenage refugee girl on Nauru attempted suicide last December with an overdose of medication. She continued to express suicidal thoughts and the wish to end her life. Other refugee children on Nauru have been affected by a trauma-related psychological disorder known as traumatic withdrawal syndrome, or resignation syndrome.

International Reaction

United Nations bodies and experts have documented the harms caused by of the Australian Government’s offshore policy. They have called for Australia to close the camps and immediately transfer the people held there to Australia. In February, Australia will come before the Committee on the Rights of the Child, where abuses against children under Australia’s effective control on Nauru are sure to be raised.

But Australia has met this international condemnation with a shrug, shirking responsibility onto its Pacific Island partners. Australia has also sought to justify the measures as “tough but effective” in order to “save lives at sea.” Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott responded that “Australians were sick of being lectured by the UN.” Yet the cumulative effect of five years of abuse and repeated flouting of international law has irreparably damaged Australia’s reputation as a rights-respecting nation.

Australia’s Obligations

Australia is jointly responsible under international law for safeguarding the human rights of the refugees and asylum seekers it has transferred to Nauru and PNG.  Australia has exercised effective control over the Nauru and PNG offshore operations. This includes ensuring refugees and asylum seekers are protected from torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, sexual violence and refoulement (or return to a country where there is a serious risk of persecution or torture). The Australian government is also obligated to respect rights to health, due process, and equality before the law. For children, under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the best interests of the child are paramount and children should enjoy the right to education and family unity. On all counts, at various times, the Australian government has failed to uphold these obligations, and the government continually violates international law by penalizing refugees for irregular entry.

In August, humanitarian and human rights groups started a “Kids Off Nauru” campaign. At the time, there were 119 refugee and asylum seeker children on Nauru. The campaign set today as the deadline for the government to remove all children from Nauru. Now, there are 17.

Mounting political pressure worked to force the government to remove the children, but many were only transferred following the commencement of legal proceedings. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection has delayed or denied many transfers for months or years, ignoring the recommendations of Australian doctors. It is an extraordinary achievement by medical professionals, lawyers and civil society advocates to have removed more than 100 children. But as children and families leave the island, the situation becomes even more desperate and depressing for the 17 children and hundreds of adults left behind.

And for those leaving the island, all is not well. Transfer from Nauru doesn't mean refugee children and their families will be allowed to settle permanently in Australia or be allowed to move about freely. According to those providing assistance to new arrivals from Nauru, some are being kept under guard in hospitals and motels, separated from family members who may be held in detention or in different states. They all face the threat of being returned to Nauru at some future date. 

Sending asylum seekers offshore doesn’t absolve Australia of its international responsibilities to them. The fact that the Australian government has known about these abuses and has not taken sufficient action to end them indicates a strategy of permitting abuse. One day, an Australian leader will  apologise to refugee children held on Nauru, just as Morrison spoke to survivors of child sexual abuse. Morrison may no longer be the prime minister that day, but he will be held to account for his actions as immigration minister.