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Australia’s refugee detention centers are so awful that people are setting themselves on fire

Protesters rally in February against hundreds more asylum seekers, including babies, being deported to Nauru.
  • Steve Mollman
By Steve Mollman

Weekend editor

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

The island nation of Nauru is one the world’s smallest countries—but it’s home to a big controversy.

Yesterday (May 2) a Somali woman set herself on fire to bring attention to that controversy. Days earlier an Iranian man did the same. Both are among hundreds of refugees who’ve spent years on the sweltering Pacific island.

Australia’s ruling Liberal party, led by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, has taken a harsh stance against accepting refugees arriving by boat. The government pays Nauru much-needed money to host the detention center, which is a whopping 3,328 kilometers from Brisbane. It has made it a policy to send refugees who try to reach Australia by boat to the center (or other centers), and refuses to welcome them to Australia. Many of the asylum seekers have fled violence and hardship in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and South Asia.

Conditions for the refugees on Nauru are difficult—bad enough that the recent self-immolations are just the latest examples of people hurting themselves in protest. In 2013 more than a dozen refugees on Nauru stitched their lips together as part of hunger strike over their treatment. Last week four people drank washing powder to protest. Two Iranian women have gone missing. One man attempted suicide despite being the sole parent of an eight-year-old girl.

Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton released a statement today (May 3) on the self-immolation of the Somali woman, noting she had been transferred to a hospital in Australia for care. He suggested that refugees such as her were being encouraged by “advocates and others” to “engage in behaviors they believe will pressure the government to bring them to Australia.”

Refugee advocates have stridently denied such accusations from government officials in the past.

Last month Dutton responded to attacks from the Labor party—which will challenge the Liberal party in elections in July—over the tough stance. He argued that the current policies have dramatically reduced the amount of people-smuggling and number of illegal maritime arrivals in Australia. Letting the refugees now on Nauru into the Australia, the argument goes, will only encourage more dangerous sea journeys.

Turnbull recently warned Australians to not get “misty-eyed” on immigration policy.

But conditions have been so bad for so long on Nauru that opinion—both national and international—seems to be turning increasingly against the harsh policies. Yesterday the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees issued a statement calling for the “immediate movement of [Nauru] refugees and asylum-seekers to humane conditions.”

On Twitter hashtags like #mistyeyed and #only19—reportedly the age of the female refugee who set herself on fire—have become rallying points for Australians opposed to the policies.

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