On the first day of the year in Nauru, Iranian refugee Bita* sent a damning letter to the Australian Border Force (ABF) accusing it of “barbarism”. She had been refused resettlement in the United States and demanded an end to being held indefinitely on the Pacific island.
“I’m fed up and I’m not going to beg for settlement in Australia or reunion with my brother [in Australia] any more,” she wrote to the ABF. “Please let me know when would you let me seek asylum in another country which cares about humanitarian [sic].”
The ABF is the government agency responsible for onshore and offshore border control.
Bita, a 30-year-old woman from an Arab minority in Iran, asked the agency why it refused to treat her depression, anxiety attacks, hand pains and sciatica. Was this a way of abusing her, she wondered? “If so, please let me know when you are planning to stop harming and punishing me,” she wrote.
Bita has sent a stream of increasingly anguished correspondence to the ABF for years, pleading for intervention. Medical specialists on Nauru have acknowledged her long mental decline. “There is very little life in her,” one International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) counsellor reported.
Bita was transferred to Nauru in 2014 after fleeing Iran due to state and family violence and travelling by boat from Indonesia to Australia. After more than five years in detention she lives without hope of immediate resettlement.
Testimonies of refugee women on Nauru show an acute situation of untreated illnesses, sexual abuse and degradation.
“To what scripture have you taken oath, that I was bleeding from a dog attack, yet like a bloodthirsty monster you were smelling my blood?” wrote Iranian refugee Sahar* to IHMS this year. “You kept telling me my wounds were not serious … Your oath is to the devil, not to God.”
In 2017 Sahar was attacked by a dog in a Nauruan detention camp. After being bitten, her anxiety worsened. When a recent discussion with IHMS on not being given necessary treatment became heated, she threw a cup of boiling water onto her face and banged her head into a wall. After the incident, doctors decided to give her medication every third day.
“I don’t forgive nor forget,” she wrote to IHMS in early 2019. “I instead will speak up for justice.”
The Morrison government warns resettling refugees from Nauru to New Zealand would risk restarting the people-smuggling trade to Australia. Labor remains committed to offshore processing.
Medecins Sans Frontieres’ clinical psychologist Dr Christine Rufener, who worked with MSF on Nauru until it was expelled last October, says75 per cent of patients had experienced trauma before arriving on Nauru, “so they were already vulnerable. Essentially, a life under indefinite detention almost inherently includes exposure to multiple risk factors for severe, chronic mental illnesses.”
More than 3000 asylum seekers have been sent to Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea since 2012, in the latest iteration of Australia’s offshore processing policy. Long before September 11, 2001, the government used privatised detention facilities to house asylum seekers.
Today about 480 asylum seekers are left on Nauru, including seven children, and roughly 624 refugees are on Manus Island.
Setareh*, Sahar’s sister, is also on Nauru and suffers abdominal pain. “Stomach-related problems started in early 2017 after she took four to five spoons of chilli in reported suicidal attempt,” IHMS psychiatrist Lina Klansek found in December 2018. Setareh “has a history of previous self-harm behaviour such as banging the wall with the head, stabbing with the needle and admits to self-immolate [sic] a day before assessment with a burning spoon”. Setareh says she experienced sexual harassment on Nauru in 2014 and 2017.
In a letter this year to the ABF, Setareh wrote that “through your tax payers money you kept us here for almost 6 years now”. She accused the ABF of deliberately hiding parts of her medical records. “All the wounds I have endured for the last 6 years never would heal even [with] settlement in Australia. Cannot be a compensation for all the hardship I have gone through.”
“Many women have urinated in a bottle or bucket rather than risk the sexual advances and attacks from men by going to the toilet during the night,” Dr Barri Phatarfod, founder and president of Doctors for Refugees, said. “Many children consequently still wet the bed at night well into their teens.”
In response to a series of questions regarding the women in this story, a spokesman for the ABF refused to provide any answers and directed The Age and Sydney Morning Herald to the ABF website.
In a letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, 56-year-old, Iranian asylum seeker Malikeh, who self-harmed before Christmas, wrote: “I understand that the Christian calendar sees Christmas as a time of joy, love and celebration but this has nothing to do with the punishment of refugees like myself.”
She concluded her letter with an anguished question directed to the Prime Minister. “I would like to know what my continued imprisonment has to do with values and spirit of Christianity?”
Bita, Sahar, Setareh and Malikeh are still on a waiting list for a caseworker and legal help with Australian-based advocacy organisations.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy
Saba Vasefi is a Sydney-based, award-winning artist, journalist, filmmaker and poet.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent, investigative journalist and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe.