“I didn’t want to live in this world any more. I don’t want to be alive the next day. I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to open my eyes. No hope. Disappointed.”
Refugees who have been settled on the Pacific island of Nauru under Australia’s offshore asylum policy have told the Guardian in covert interviews of their deep sense of helplessness, and fear of Nauruans who resent their presence.
Since May, more than 400 people who were detained after trying to arrive in Australia by boat have been found to be refugees and released into an island population of less than 10,000. Their arrival has convulsed Nauruan society and there is growing antipathy towards them.
They live in several guarded camps dotted around the island. Their cramped quarters provide the basics, but little more. In the following interviews they describe a monotonous and unsafe existence devoid of hope. Many are escaping through a heavy regimen of sleeping pills. Depression is ubiquitous.
The refugees’ future is uncertain. The Nauruan government has given them five-year visas; Australia has said they will never be allowed to settle there.
Tony Abbott’s government has pursued the policy vigorously, but the Australian stance is essentially bipartisan. It was the former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd who made the announcement that still defines Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers: “Arriving in Australia by boat will no longer mean settlement in Australia,” he said before the 2013 election (in which Abbott eventually trounced him). Rudd’s policy drew criticism from the UN’s refugee agency who warned the policy was likely to harm the “physical and psycho-social wellbeing of transferees”.
The date Rudd made his speech, 19 July, 2013, has become notorious among asylum seekers – an arbitrary marker of the capricious immigration politics that has left them in limbo. Many have family or friends who left Indonesia days before them and are now settled in Australia.
The policy achieved its goals. The boats to Australia have (mostly) stopped. But not without a cost.
The following interviews were conducted in the refugees’ accommodation on Nauru while local security guards slept outside. Nauru has effectively banned foreign journalists, making it difficult for refugees to explain their plight, or for the Australian public to scrutinise the consequences of its government’s immigration policy.
All names have been changed to protect the refugees. The refugees pictured have covered their faces for safety, not for religious reasons.