Coming Up Fri 12:00 AM  AEST
Coming Up Live in 
BBC Arabic radio

The Nauru refugee who went back where he came from

Source: Getty Images

"Returning to homelands for Nauru refugees is like committing suicide," Sami says. So why, five years after he fled Iraq for his life, is he going back?

“Australia killed us, killed us, killed us in this place called Nauru,” Sami* says. He is waiting to board a plane back to Iraq, the country he fled from five years earlier. He doesn’t know what awaits him there. But after years of languishing in detention, he says he has lost hope and is too tired to keep waiting. 

“Australia stole the sweetest years of my life, and the image [I had] of Australia as a country that respects human rights has [been destroyed] in my mind," he tells SBS Arabic over the phone from Manus Island, where he has been transferred from the Nauru Regional Processing Centre for the night before flying out. 

Both of his brothers have been killed by militia, and the group has threatened Sami. Iraq is not safe for him, he says. He believes the Australian Government knows this. For this reason, he wants it known that whatever does happen to him, "the Australian government carries the responsibility".

“They have my file and they know what happened to my family. [They know about the] killing and displacement. They are the first and last I hold accountable for my return.”

“This action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it anymore."

In five years of detainment, Sami says he saw a lot of misery. Disease was rife in the camp and he saw many fellow refugees self-harm and attempt to end their own lives. 

When SBS previously interviewed Sami in August 2016, he spoke about the well-documented incident involving 23-year-old detainee Omid Masoumali, who had self-immolated during a visit from United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) officials in April 2016. 

“On [the officials’] last visit, after visiting the families’ camps, an Iranian refugee, Omid, set himself on fire, in front of the UNHCR,” Sami said.

“For them it was a normal thing. They filmed him on the phone, until he was totally burnt, and they left”. 

According to one witness who had spoken to Guardian Australia shortly after the incident, before setting him self alight, Mr Masoumali had said: “This is how tired we are, this action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it anymore”.

He died of his injuries in hospital two days later.

The UNHCR’s Regional Representative in Canberra confirmed staff had been present “during the self-immolation of an Iranian refugee in April 2016” but denied UNHRC staff had themselves taken any images or footage.

“They tried to assist him with water and blankets, before he was quickly taken to hospital. The subsequent death of the man, who sustained fatal burns, is a tragedy,” a UNHCR spokesperson told SBS, also adding: “The refugee had not spoken with UNHCR staff prior to his self-immolation.”

The Republic of Nauru’s government described Mr Masoumali's self-immolation as “a political protest” and said “there is no value in such behaviour”.

The man's widow denied her late-husband's actions were part of a political act. 

Refugees, asylum seekers

“Returning to homelands for Nauru refugees is like committing suicide"

Sami prayed for years to be resettled in Australia. Since fleeing his homeland in 2013 in a boat crammed with dozens of other asylum seekers, he has spent the most part of five years living in a tent with 50 other detainees on Nauru. 

In 2016, the United States agreed to take up to 1,250 refugees, so he prayed for resettlement in America. In the two years since, about 120 refugees have been transferred to the US from all of Australia’s offshore detention centres.

By April 2018, after having his applications repeatedly rejected, Sami stopped praying. He gave up on his "dream" to live in Australia. He chose to be deported because he says he doesn't have the strength to keep waiting in Nauru, which he describes as a “very, very bad place”. 

When Sami spoke to SBS from Port Moresby on April 4 before he boarded his plane, he sounded hopeless, but also relieved. 

“I am tired of my unknown fate,” Sami told SBS over the phone. “I have lost hope of this process and can no longer afford to wait and live in these miserable conditions on Nauru”.

He feels the Australian Government has completely failed refugees like himself, both in the detention centres and through its decision to turn away desperate, vulnerable people who had hoped to find safety in Australia. 

The Department of Home Affairs said it was unable to comment on individual cases but maintained individuals are not removed to their country of origin where it would be inconsistent with Australia's protection obligations and international humans rights laws. 

"In cases where people make a voluntary decision to return home, assistance is available to help them depart, return home and re-establish their lives in their home country. This is an internationally supported practice," a spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs told SBS. 

Sami says he will always hold Australia responsible for the trauma and humiliation inflicted on refugees in offshore processing centres, and for whatever befalls him in the unstable country he tried to escape. 

“[The Australian Government] is responsible for my decision to return and what may happen to me in Iraq," he says. 

“Returning to homelands for Nauru refugees is like committing suicide."


  • Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
  • Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467.
  • Multicultural Mental Health Australia:


 *Name changed to protect anonymity