Immigration

This is what happened to the children on Nauru that Australia rejected

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The final refugee children to leave Australia's offshore processing centre may now be resettled in the US, but the scars of life in detention remain.

Kirsty Johansen reports from New York City

Content warning: references to self-harm and suicide

Thousands of people gathered across Australia at the weekend, calling for an end to offshore processing, ahead of next month’s federal election.

“We have allowed human beings to be mistreated, looked away as people have died,” refugee advocate and presenter Craig Foster told a crowd at the Palm Sunday rally in Sydney. “Policy must follow.”

The final refugee children departed Nauru for the US in February, but the horrors they endured on the Pacific island are difficult to leave behind. 

The Yarsir family
The Yarsir family had their third child while on Nauru.
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“I think the vast majority of children who have come to America have PTSD in one form or another,” says Fleur Wood, an Australian co-founder of New York charity Ads-Up, which helps resettle refugees from Nauru.

“We’ve had a lot of people with anxiety and depression. Often, they don’t have great English, they don’t have job set skills, they don’t have an education, often they’ve got health issues and they are terrified of going out.”

Here are some of their stories. 

Eight-year-old Obaidullah was on Nauru for nearly five years and witnessed suicide attempts. His sister Jasmine was born there. He now lives in San Antonio, Texas.

Obaidullah Yarsir was born in Myanmar, but spent the majority of his childhood on Nauru, sleeping in a tent, eating only at designated times and being allowed to shower for just two minutes each day.

When he wasn’t suffering from malnutrition he attended the local school but says he was tormented.

“If I went to school, they [local people] bullied me and stole my food ... they would throw rocks,” the eight-year-old tells SBS News.

His father Mohammad Yarsir, says the situation was “horrific” and the family’s time on Nauru was “useless” for Obaidullah and his brother Atik, six, and sister Jasmine, three, who was born on the island.

Obaidullah Yarsir
Obaidullah Yarsir spent the majority of his childhood on Nauru.
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Mr Yarsir says medical treatment on Nauru was “no good”.

Three months before his wife gave birth to their youngest child, he started asking authorities to send her to Australia for the delivery because she had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, but he was told that wasn’t possible.

“My wife’s pregnancy was terrible, her [episiotomy sewing, a procedure during childbirth] was very bad … a US doctor had to finish the sewing [two years later],” he says. 

When his daughter fell severely ill with a stomach infection he tried to contact emergency services for help.

“I called four or five times but they didn’t come for four hours. When they came they just gave me some medicine and said 'come back tomorrow'.”

“They don’t care about us, whether we survive.”

Mr Yarsir says trying to shield his young children from regular suicide attempts on Nauru was one of the most difficult tasks.

“One day a man set himself on fire … They saw it and asked me what’s this?”

“Obaidullah remembers.”

The Yarsir family
The Yarsir family now live in Texas.
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Mr Yarsir “regrets” coming to Australia.

“We will never get back again those five years … they should have sent us back to Burma where we are from.”

His family have resettled in San Antonio, Texas, where he is a custodian at the local mosque and Obaidullah is attending school.

“Life isn’t easy but we have freedom, so our family has a future.”

His son Obaidullah adds: “It’s much better in the US. I have more friends and I can play outside if I want to”.  

Anisha* was a teenager on Nauru. She attempted suicide and was forced to look after her four-year-old niece who also had depression. She now lives in San Diego.

Anisha, 23, became so depressed during her five years on Nauru she attempted suicide in the hope immigration officials would send her family to Australia for a better life.

“It’s like a prison,” she says. “Nauru is hell … maybe hell is better than Nauru.”

Originally from Sri Lanka, she was a refugee for 14 years in India and spent five years on Nauru. In that time she was depressed and self-harmed.

Anisha
Anisha now lives in San Diego.
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Anisha says she tried to seek help twice but the local clinic turned her away.

“They just talk and say 'don’t lose your hope, it will all work out'.”

With a dream to become a doctor and no education services available though, it became a vicious cycle.

“Everything has been lost. All I could do is study English myself.”

She was also forced to look after her niece who was just three years old when they arrived on Nauru. She too then became impacted by the situation.

“I am the head of the household and when my niece got to four years old she became depressed. She wanted to see her father and kept asking ‘when are we going to Australia?’ She had no education at all for five years.”

The family is now living in San Diego and Anisha has got a job at Subway, but it’s not an easy life.

“The rent is so expensive over here, insurance, my loan ... I’m working and studying to become a medical assistant but it’s still so hard. We have freedom but I still feel like I’m in Nauru,” she says. 

“I’m running, running, running. I start my school at 8.30am and then I finish at 3pm, then my work starts at 4pm and I come back at 10.30pm.”

“I still get the same thoughts to self-harm … I was in the emergency ... what life is that? I feel like sometimes ‘why did I come here?’”

Faisal Arkani, 24 was a teenager when he arrived on Nauru and says he was abused during his time there. He now lives in Chicago.

Faisal Arkani, 24, was just 16 years old when he left Myanmar alone, hoping to find a better life in Australia.

He spent five years on Nauru and says he still believes it is worse than what he endured as a persecuted Rohingya in his home country.

“I was a young child so I faced lots of bullies by security and the local people,” he says.  

“The place they kept us, it’s not a right place as a human being you shouldn’t be there. The place where we are being treated as a number … they treated us worse than animals.” 

Faisal Arkani
Faisal Arkani was a teenager when he arrived on Nauru.
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Packed into a tent with up to 40 other men, life was “horrible”, he says. 

“Forty of us in like 20 square metres ... we didn’t have mosquito nets and there were lots of rats and cockroaches. They didn’t provide us with anything, like no sunscreen, no shampoos and soap.”

“They only give me one-minute time to have my showers … sometimes they would cut it off at 50 seconds ... it’s like I was a criminal over there, like I did something really bad.” 

Mr Arkani says he would queue for three to four hours for lunch and dinner each day and would have to wait two weeks to be allowed to contact his family.

He made two official reports with police after being physically abused but they were never investigated.

“I never used to go out because the locals they used to rob us, they used to beat us,” he says. 

“They [officials] gave me drugs to sleep but they made me sick … I still have nightmares because most of my close friends [died by suicide].”

A Médecins Sans Frontières report released in December found 30 per cent of asylum seekers treated on Nauru had attempted suicide, including children as young as nine. 

Of the patients seen by the group's doctors, 62 per cent had been diagnosed with moderate or severe depression.

Mr Arkani
Mr Arkani now works in a restaurant in Chicago.
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Mr Arkani is now living in Chicago with several other young men from Nauru.

He is working in a restaurant but hopes to one day become a political activist.

“We have a happy life here … I am going to have primary citizenship in the United States.”

“This is the first time as a Rohingya I am going to have legal documents anywhere in the world.”

Adequate services

In a statement, the Department of Home Affairs refuted the claims made to SBS News by those formerly living there.

“Refugees and transferees in Nauru receive health care broadly consistent with Australian public health standards,” a spokesperson said last month, pointing to 24-hour medical services, a “fully equipped medical centre” and a mental health inpatient unit.

At the time of the response, “there were 52 contracted health professionals, including 21 mental health professionals providing services to transferees … a ratio of approximately one mental health professional to every 18 transferees”.

The spokesperson said an outreach “Adolescent Mental Health Service team and a Child and Youth Specialist Therapeutic Program” was previously established in Nauru before services were reduced in November 2018 due to the reduced number of children, and replaced by a mental health nurse, counsellor and psychologist.

International health services “also deployed specialist child psychiatrists to Nauru, if there was a clinical need.”

On overseas medical transfers, the spokesperson said: “If requisite medical care or equipment is unavailable in Nauru, refugees or transferees may be transferred to a third country, including Papua New Guinea, Taiwan or Australia”.

On living conditions, they said refugees are provided with free furnished accommodation and are provided assistance to find employment, and transferees "receive a fortnightly income support payment of up to AU$200 per person.”

According to the Refugee Council of Australia, as of 26 March there were 359 people left on Nauru.

*Not her real name

Readers seeking support and information about suicide can contact Lifeline 24 hours a day online and on 13 11 14. Other services include the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467, Beyond Blue and Kids Helpline (for people aged five to 25) on 1800 55 1800.

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