Suicide attempts and horrifying acts of self-harm are drawing fresh attention to the suffering of refugee children on Nauru, in what is being described as a “mental health crisis”.
The tiny island nation, site of Australia’s controversial offshore processing centre, has long been plagued with allegations of human rights abuses.
But a series of damning media reports recently has also highlighted a rapidly deteriorating situation for young people.
“We are starting to see suicidal behaviour in children as young as eight and 10 years old,” says Louise Newman, professor of psychiatry at the University of Melbourne who works with families and children on the island.
“It’s absolutely a crisis.”
A loss of hope
Australia intercepts all asylum seekers and refugees who try to reach its shores by boat. It insists they will never be able to resettle in Australia, so over the years has sent many to privately run “processing centres” it funds on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea.
Groups working with families on Nauru paint a brutal picture of life for children on the island. Many have lived most of their life in detention, with no idea of what their future will be.
The trauma they have endured, coupled with poor – and often dangerous conditions – contribute to a sense of hopelessness.
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Natasha Blucher, detention advocacy manager at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), was unable to share details of specific cases with the BBC due to privacy and safety concerns.
But she said ASRC works with about 15 children who have either made repeated suicide attempts or are regularly self-harming.
What is traumatic withdrawal syndrome?
- It is a progressive, deteriorating condition most commonly seen in children and that can be life threatening.
- Begins with disengagement from enjoyable activities such as playing or drawing and progressively worsens. Sufferers may begin to refuse food and drink.
- In the worst cases a sufferer will become unresponsive, unable to speak and their body will begin to shut down.
- Treatment, which can take months, requires access to paediatric intensive care.
- A large outbreak was observed in group of asylum seekers in sweden.
Children feel ‘unsafe’
Prof Newman, a former advisor to the Australian government on the mental health of asylum seekers, says the outbreak of this very serious condition is particularly concerning.
“In many ways it’s not surprising… they are exposed to a lot of trauma there [and] a sense of hopelessness and abandonment. They feel very unsafe”.
Another physician assisting with children’s cases is GP Barri Phatarfod. Her organisation Doctors 4 Refugees has not been allowed to visit Nauru but receives referrals from advocates for assessment and advice. She says of the 60 cases referred to her organisation, every child has some mental health impairment.
“It’s impossible not to,” she says. “They witness suicide attempts almost daily as well as sexual harassment and physical and sexual abuse and there is no prospect of release.”