For years, asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat have been turned away, sent instead to offshore processing centers in Nauru and on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, where they have lingered indefinitely, hoping to be resettled elsewhere.
Medical and human rights experts have warned that their isolation on the islands is dangerous: Some children detained on Nauru have self-harmed or developed resignation syndrome, a potentially deadly condition brought on by severe stress. As of early last year, at least a dozen asylum seekers and refugees had died while on Nauru or Manus.
So when Australians took to the polls this past week, refugees were among those who felt they had the most at stake. With polls suggesting that the Labor Party was looking likely to unseat the center-right government, some refugees dared to dream that resettlement off the islands could soon be possible.
But in a completely unexpected, poll-defying twist, Prime Minister Scott Morrison managed to hold on to power. Morrison helped develop Australia’s hard-line immigration policies, including the controversial offshore processing. As the New York Times reported last year, he even has a model migrant boat in his office, inscribed with the words “I Stopped These.”
Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian-Kurdish journalist and writer who has been on Manus since 2013, told The Washington Post in a phone call that the election results brought a wave of despair to the island. He knows of at least 12 refugees who have attempted suicide in recent days, he said.
“The election was like a big chance and the last chance for us,” he said. “After that, people just lost hope."
There have been conflicting reports over the number of attempted suicides and incidents of self-harm since the election.
CNN reported that the provincial police commander on Manus said two refugees attempted suicide this past weekend. Agence France-Presse reported Tuesday that at least four asylum seekers at the offshore centers had attempted suicide since Morrison’s government was reelected Saturday. Australian news outlet News.com.au reported that six people had attempted suicide since Sunday.
In an email, Amnesty International campaigns manager Tim O’Connor told The Post that his organization had heard “reports from several sources, including Government officials, that there have been nine attempted suicides since the weekend” in Papua New Guinea.
“There is certainly increased desperation and anxiety amongst the refugees we have spoken with, who remain trapped in limbo by the Australian Government for almost six years,” O’Connor said.
A spokesman for the Australian Department of Home Affairs said in an emailed statement that “it takes seriously its role in supporting” Papua New Guinea and Nauru to ensure individuals in both places are “provided with a range of health, welfare and support services arrangements.”
According to the Refugee Council of Australia, more than 4,000 asylum seekers have been sent to Nauru and Papua New Guinea in recent years. As of March 2019, there were a total of 915 people still on the islands as the result of Australia’s immigration policies, the group said.
Although the Manus detention center shut down in 2017, many of those who were held there remained on Manus in various camps.
Last year, legal and medical advocates working with children stranded on Nauru said a number of them had stopped eating and speaking, symptoms of resignation syndrome. In October, when Doctors Without Borders (which goes by its French initials, MSF) was banned from working on Nauru, the group said that at least 78 people under their care had considered suicide, “engaged in self-harm or attempted suicide.” There was so much demand for mental health assistance that about 100 people were on a wait list, an MSF official told The Post at the time.
In February, the Australian government said the remaining children being held on Nauru would be resettled in the United States. The same month, Australian lawmakers narrowly voted in favor of allowing doctors to approve asylum seekers’ travel from the islands to Australia for medical reasons. That bill, which was backed by the opposition Labor Party, came to be known as the “medevac law,” and Morrison’s coalition government now plans to try to repeal it, the Guardian reported.
Boochani has written extensively about his detention and its mental toll, including in a book called “No Friend But the Mountains,” which won Australia’s Victorian Prize for Literature this year. Boochani was not able to leave Manus to attend the award ceremony.
He told The Post on Wednesday that he and other refugees on Manus have experienced a number of gut-wrenching incidents, including the deaths of detainees, since they arrived there years ago. But he has “never seen refugees like this before,” he said, referencing the sense of despair that set in on the island once the election results came in.
“It’s really hard to keep yourself strong,” he said. “It’s really hard to survive."
This article has been updated.