Amnesty-Human Rights Watch investigation reports medical neglect and assaults on Nauru

Thousands rally at Sydney Town Hall to protest against the High Court’s decision regarding 267 refugees facing deportation in February. Richard Ashen/Newzulu

Refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru routinely face neglect by Australian-hired health workers and frequent unpunished assaults by local Nauruans, according to an Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch investigation.

“They endure unnecessary delays and at times denial of medical care, even for life-threatening conditions. Many have dire mental health problems and suffer overwhelming despair – self-harm and suicide attempts are frequent,” it found.

A researcher from each organisation spent 12 days in Nauru. They said they entered the country legally and were not asked their organisational affiliations. They interviewed 84 refugees and asylum seekers including 29 women, as well as several service providers.

The two organisations concluded that in relation to the people sent to Nauru “the Australian government has violated the rights to be free from torture and other ill-treatment, and from arbitrary detention, as well as other fundamental protections”.

Michael Bochenek, senior counsel on children’s rights at Human Rights Watch, and one of the two investigators, said: “Driving adult and even child refugees to the breaking point with sustained abuse appears to be one of Australia’s aims on Nauru”.

Refugees and asylum seekers told them the staff of the health services provider International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) and Nauru’s hospital often refused to take their health complaints seriously.

Some said “they had developed serious medical problems in Nauru and that they had received virtually no specialised medical attention. They had heart and kidney diseases, diabetes accompanied by weight loss and rapidly deteriorating eyesight, and back problems leading to reduced mobility.”

When senior IHMS staff in Australia were asked about this, they strongly refuted claims of poor medical care.

Beginning in February, Australian immigration authorities had insisted on medical transfers to Papua New Guinea rather than to Australia, service providers said.

“In cases in which the transfer to Australia is still deemed necessary, Australian immigration officials usually authorise transfer of the patient alone. Service providers said this new practice was introduced after lawyers in Australia were successful in preventing the returns of some of the refugees to Nauru following medical treatment.”

The report said people suffering psychological traumas and severe mental health conditions did not receive adequate support or treatment.

Nearly all interviewees reported mental health issues of some kind, and families could wait for months to have their children seen by a visiting specialist. More than a dozen of the adults interviewed said they had tried to kill themselves and many more said they had seriously considered ending their lives. Some children had injured themselves with lighters, razor-blades or in other ways.

Nearly all referred to the 23-year-old Iranian man who died in May after setting himself alight. One man said: “I have the oil ready”; a 15-year old girl, saying she had tried to commit suicide twice, said “I’m tired of my life”.

All those interviewed “reported intimidation, harassment or violence directed at them or family members by Nauruans acting alone or in groups. They said the assailants cursed and spat on them, threw bottles and stones, swerved vehicles in their direction as they walked or rode on motorbikes, or broke their windows or destroyed other property.”

“In all, more than 20 of those interviewed said they had been attacked by Nauruans.” A refugee from Bangladesh received a serious head trauma in May when a Nauruan threw a large rock at him, kicked him off his motorbike and beat him.

A Somali woman said several Nauruans attacked her husband in March, hitting him on the head with a machete; the next night a group of Nauruans tried to break into the family’s housing.