December 19, 2013
Genuine refugees suffer on Nauru as the government works to break their spirits.
There are no signs to guide you to Australia’s detention centre on Nauru. You instead have to follow the signs that lead to the island’s ”rubbish dump” and eventually they take you straight to the detention centre’s entrance. That alone explains a lot about how Australia is dealing with these refugees who, tragically, include women and children.
When you enter the secure compound, the first thing you notice is the stifling heat that hangs heavy over the camp. The tents have no air-conditioning, fans are in brutally short supply, the humidity is unbelievable and shade is sparse. The second thing you notice is the desperation in the eyes of the people who are being held there.
There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that it is inhumane for adults to be held in the Nauru camp’s conditions, but the fact that children are being held there is truly unacceptable. There is no playground in the compound, there aren’t any toys, and all the children have to play in is the bright white gravel that blankets the entire camp. Those white stones are there because the detention centre is right in the middle of a quarry that was once a central part of the island’s ailing phosphate mine.
There are 765 people locked in the Nauru detention centre right now. The camp is divided into different sections with single adult men held in one area and families, including mothers, babies and unaccompanied children, on the other side of the centre. It is the family compound where the desperation is at its most heart-wrenchingly intense and it is the pregnant women who are the most afraid of what the future will hold.
Every refugee I spoke to referred to the camp as a ”jail” and many wanted to know what they had done to warrant their imprisonment. A widowed father of two told me, as his eyes filled with tears, ”My children ask me every day, when are we getting out of this prison? Every day I lie to them, but now I have no lies left.”
Among the adults that I spoke to there were many highly skilled, highly educated people. I spoke to doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, a psychologist and a journalist. These people want to contribute to Australian society but, instead, we are destroying them, mentally and emotionally.
In conditions as harsh as those on Nauru it is often the small things, the day-to-day things, which weigh heaviest on people’s minds. While I was in the family compound, distraught children repeatedly came to me and begged for new shoes because theirs had worn through and the hot gravel was hurting their feet. They said that when they asked the detention centre staff for shoes their pleas were ignored and that their parents couldn’t do anything to ease their pain.
One child said to me, ”Sometimes I think we are treated like animals, but then I realise animals have a better life than we do in this place.” It is beyond question that this government’s policies are creating the next generation of damaged children.
There is a battle of wills taking place on Nauru right now. The Australian government is trying to break the spirit of these vulnerable people in the hope that they’ll return to the countries from which they have fled. This indignity and the lack of control that the refugees have over their own lives is being carried out methodically, with the aim of dehumanising those who have been locked up. The conditions are designed to break people and it’s sickening that young boys and girls are being abused like this.
Children are forced to line up for their meals, often spending hours in the beating sun every day just to get food. One morning when I arrived at the camp I saw a group of children lining up for lunch and then, when I left at the end of the day, those same children were lining up for dinner. I asked what they had done during the day and they looked at me, confused, and shrugged. ”Lining up for lunch, lining up for dinner,” one of the children said, and left it at that.
History has shown us that more than 90 per cent of the people that we’ve locked up in the white-hot compound on Nauru will be found to be genuine refugees. In the future we’re going to have to explain to our grandchildren how this all came about; how human beings were left in appalling conditions, in between the rubbish dump and the phosphate mine on Nauru, because of the form of transport that they used to flee from war and persecution in their homelands.
Sarah Hanson-Young is an Australian Greens senator for South Australia.