The extreme cruelty endured by refugees on Nauru is not the result of a few sadistic guards; it is a deliberate government policy, according to Amnesty International.
Islands of despair, the latest report from the organisation, describes conditions in the camp. Jalil* fled religious persecution in Iran. He spoke to Amnesty about the psychological torture inflicted by the government:
“Immigration has been playing mental games on us: one day they wouldn’t give enough water, other day would say, ‘You would never go to Australia’. They would give us a few minutes to shower. They said: ‘Our country – our water, so we decide when to turn it off’. Everybody was on pills for mental health, crying every night.”
Shadi* and Mirza* live on Nauru with their son Shahin*. They face an uncertain future. Their house has been broken into twice. It is too much for 10-year-old Shahin. He refused to leave the house again. His mother, Shadi, struggled even more, said Mirza. “She was talking to me about suicide. I told the case manager but she did nothing. Shadi was saying, ‘Maybe we should commit suicide together’, but I said, ‘No, we have a son’.”
These horrors are no accident. They point to a whole bureaucracy of health workers, guards and government officials who are very aware of what the refugees are suffering. Some staff face two years in prison for speaking openly about what is going on.
The government deliberately makes applying for refugee status in Australia as difficult and dangerous as possible.
According to Hassan,* an Afghan, when former immigration minister Scott Morrison visited, “he was just pointing his finger at us, saying, ‘Don’t ask questions, just listen – call to your country, call to your village, and just tell them not to come to Australia, Australia is closed!’ Then I realised we were not in processing – we were hostages”.
These refugees serve as a message to other vulnerable people to stay away from Australia. The approach has the support of both major parties.
When the report was released, the secretary of immigration, Mike Pezzullo, was asked for a response. He was unfazed. He spoke of “traumatisation” and “demoralisation” – not of asylum seekers, but of guards. He was “personally offended” by the report.
Liberal senator Linda Reynolds described the “demonisation” of border force staff as “hate speech”. “Words hurt”, she said. One report is not going to be enough to challenge this government, but it is a lesson in its brutality.
* To protect the refugees from retaliation, Amnesty didn’t use their real names