“It is very hard for Muslim girls to live in Burma. For the boys it is not so dangerous. They just get killed,” said the first girl, 13. “I consumed washing detergents… poison… I’m so tired of everything,” said the second girl.
Such testimonies come from young girls currently detained in Nauru, a remote island in the Pacific, which serves as one of Australia’s offshore detention centres for asylum seekers.
The testimonies introduce us to the hardships endured by those who survived a dangerous journey at sea, but are dying slowly in a land where the living conditions have been described as cruel and appalling.
A panel of journalists, migration experts and human rights advocates gathered at the Frontline Club on 27 September to discuss the Nauru files leak, published by the Guardian in August. The files showcased evidence of child abuse, sexual assault, self-harm and suicide attempts, as well as poor living conditions inside the camp.
The leak, which involved over 2,000 incident reports and is more than 8,000 pages long, sparked immediate international outrage.
Anna Neistat, Senior Director of Research at Amnesty International, tried to get inside the camp for two years when she succeeded she said:
“I was unprepared for the level of horror that I saw there. And I don’t say these things lightly. I have been covering conflict in the last 15 years, working in places from Syria to Chechnya to Afghanistan.
“I have never seen this in any war zone that I have worked in. Almost every person I spoke to say that they either attempted suicide or self-harm (…) and that includes 9-year-old children.”
Ian Woolverton, deputy editor of Guardian Australia, said some of his journalists could not cope with the horrors they had seen on the island over the course of two years and as a result are now suffering from PTSD.
Neistat said: “They claim they are saving lives because [refugees] are not drowning at sea. But they are dying anyway and in some ways more painfully and more slowly.”
In May, Omid Masoumali, an Iranian living in the Nauru detention centre for 3 years, set himself alight during a UNHCR visit. He stayed unattended for two hours before getting medical care.
“What’s the point of surviving at sea if you die in here?” a refugee girl asked a Guardian journalist.
CHANGING THE NARRATIVE
Day in and day out, images of floating life jackets and drowning bodies fill our social media and reports of abuse and institutional negligence make global headlines. However, as the images of human pain and hopelessness have made it to our screens, the panel discussed: Have they really made it into our hearts and minds?
Eiri Ohtani, Project Director of the Detention Forum in the UK, said the overwhelming flow of daily reports may be undermining how much we care.
“I worry that this is becoming too normal,” she said. “When there are so many similar stories out there, how do we then make that story special?”
The panel agreed the Nauru files went largely under reported, especially in Australia. Ohtani said that human rights advocates and particularly journalists have an important role to play by changing the narrative that has formed around refugee-related issues, not only by giving these stories a face, but also by connecting them to a wider political landscape.
Ohtari added that journalists should be very sensitive to the narrative of deserving versus undeserving migrants, which has been forming in the media.
She said: “As an organisation (…) we get quite a lot of requests from journalists (…) that say: ‘Can you find us somebody who has fled from Syria, was in Greece and then has got a wife in Germany and left handed.’ It seems like you have already decided what you are going to say.”
— Mary Engleheart (@MaryEngleheart) September 28, 2016
Neistat said that since coming back from Nauru only one journalist had asked her the most important question – who are these people?
“I have to say they made an incredible impression on me. They all would be added value to the society and I’m saying it with no hesitation whatsoever,” she said. “None of them would be a burden, they are nurses, teachers, engineers. (…)They could buy their plane ticket and fly either to Australia or some other place, they just cannot.”
It is hard for Western audiences to relate to the horrors they flee from, but Neistat believes that is why it is important to know who they are. “Changing this narrative will affect a lot the public perception, which will in turn define government policies.”
She then concluded: “We need to stop using the term ‘refugee crisis’. It is not a refugee crisis; it is a crisis of refugee protection.”
The Australian government defended their asylum policies by disregarding the documents as false or unverified, and by stating it was an issue for the Nauruan government, despite the Australian government hiring camp employees.