The knowledge that they would never reach Australia – and that Cambodia was their only alternative – caused such distress among refugees languishing on Nauru that several contemplated self-harm and suicide, according to leaked documents made public yesterday.
The “Nauru Files”, published by the Guardian, unearthed more than 2,000 incident reports – each of which are accessible via the newspaper’s website – filed on the island, where Australia detains asylum seekers attempting to reach the country by boat.
The strict measure – condemned by Amnesty International as “cruel in the extreme” – is part of a deterrence method the Australian government claims is necessary to prevent deaths at sea.
The documents’ earliest mention of Cambodia, which in September 2014 struck a A$55 million deal with Australia to accept refugees, came on September 28 of that year, when one asylum seeker “stated that he will kill his whole family including the children because they deserve more out of life”.
According to the incident report, filed by a Save the Children worker, the man said his wife and two sons “deserved a future that he could not provide them because he did not get on a boat and come here to be resettled in Nauru or Cambodia”.
Less than a week later, on October 4, 2014, an asylum seeker told their case manager: “If one person goes to Cambodia, I will kill myself. Everyone will kill themselves.”
Two days later, another asylum seeker – on 24-hour security watch – said she was “angry” about the recent information provided in the centre about temporary protection visas and Cambodia.
She said the decision to provide some refugees with visas and not those on Nauru was “unjust” and “stated she wanted her life to end . . . [she] advised it is her right to kill herself”.
Yet another, on October 10, 2014, said: “If one person goes to Cambodia or Nauru, we will burn all of this down’ and pointed to all the tents”.
The following May, despite the fact she “sometimes feels like dying” and saw “no future here”, one woman told her case manager she did not want to see an International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) mental health worker, “as they have previously encouraged her to go to Cambodia and this has caused her further distress”.
When asked if discussing political resettlement options was part of a health worker’s purview, IHMS spokesperson Sybil Wishart said: “IHMS does not make recommendations to patients on resettlement options.”
At least one asylum seeker threatened self-harm if they could not be transferred to Cambodia.
“If they say I can’t go to Cambodia then I will kill myself”, a refugee is quoted as saying in a document dated May 5, 2015. They then requested an appointment with the immigration department to discuss the option of being resettled in Australia.
Australia’s immigration department said in a statement yesterday that the Nauru Files were simply “evidence of the rigorous reporting procedures that are in place in the regional processing centre”.
“Many of the incident reports reflect unconfirmed allegations or uncorroborated statements and claims – they are not statements of proven fact.”
For Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul, the link between the Cambodia deal and the distress of the refugees on Nauru came as no surprise.
“The Cambodian option concerned people from when it was first proposed,” he said in an email. “And there were concerns . . . when immigration and Connect [Settlement Services] were cold-calling and using interview[s] to try and push people into accepting Cambodia. One time they put pamphlets under the doors of people’s rooms. This caused a lot of distress.”
It was revealed this week that Connect had been quietly contracted in addition to the International Organization for Migration to help settle refugees in Cambodia. While five have so far accepted the offer, only one currently remains.
Connect spokesperson Laurie Nowell declined to comment on whether the group had added to the distress of refugees on Nauru by advertising Cambodia, saying “the files do not relate to our work”.