Self-immolation incidents on Nauru are acts of ‘hopeful despair’

Peter Dutton claims the self-immolations of two refugees on Nauru are ‘not a complaint about the living conditions’ in detention. AAP/Lukas Coch

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton on Tuesday lashed out at refugee supporters following two self-immolations (one fatal) and multiple incidents of self-harm on Nauru.

Dutton accused these people of encouraging refugees to self-harm and suicide. Dutton explained that the self-immolations of Omid Masoumali and Hodan Yasin were “not a complaint about the living conditions” on Nauru, but instead efforts to manipulate the Australian government and undermine its border protection policies.

Karin Andriolo, an anthropologist who has studied protest suicides, describes such actions as “acts of hopeful despair”. She argues:

We ought to pay attention to protest suicides … those who take notice … also register themselves as conscious participants in humanity.

Rising rates of self-harm

Hodan set herself on fire five days after Omid’s self-immolation, which came on day 38 of continuous protests by refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru. Four others self-harmed in the preceding 24 hours.

Last month, a refugee received a criminal conviction for attempted suicide. Another man was arrested after dousing himself in petrol.

High rates of self-harm are endemic to Nauru. And yet the Australian government persists in seeing suicide and self-harm as bad behaviour, and as the fault of manipulative refugees and their irresponsible supporters – not its own. This is despite the government having the power to end the slow and systematic destruction of life that is offshore processing.

Omid’s death was shocking in so many ways: in the excruciatingly painful act; that it was captured on video; and that it was witnessed by people not caught up in offshore processing.

The last of these is quite possibly key to why Omid chose that moment to self-immolate. Refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru are almost entirely prevented from having any contact with the outside world. Keeping them isolated from the Australian community and silencing them is essential for Australia’s policies to continue.

Offshore processing relies on the government controlling the narrative. It has allegedly imprisoned Omid’s wife in a hotel, sedated, with her mobile phone confiscated and kept under 24-hour guard to prevent her speaking publicly.

And, last year, the government passed legislation that made it a criminal offence – punishable by two years’ jail – for detention staff or contractors to speak out about conditions in offshore detention.

Wresting control of the narrative

The high rates of self-harm and suicide attempts in Nauru are likely a mix of despair and attempts to speak and be heard when all “reasonable” avenues of speaking have been closed off.

While neither Omid nor Hodan can speak for themselves, the words of former refugees who protested against their detention in Australia in the early 2000s offer some insight. The former refugees I interviewed all told me they wanted to get a message to Australians.

Issaq said that he and others were sure:

… this place is a secret … if people knew about detention, detention wouldn’t be 500km away from a city. It would have been inside a city if people were supporting it. But people are not supporting it. It’s something that people don’t know about. Now we just need to make sure that they know.

Issaq said that he and other detainees would discuss possible protest actions long into the night. Some were worried about reinforcing government representations of them as manipulative, criminal or dangerous. Issaq disagreed. He believed that protest had to be dramatic if it was to break the government’s control over the narrative:

Peacefully doesn’t answer anything because there’s no journos here. We need to get journos here and how we can do it? Just go to a town and sit there until journos come? Or just burn the place down and the smoke will bring journalists? That became the main point – just to get the journalists coming there, to have a story for a TV or radio or newspaper to put that budget for journalists to fly in there and see us because they had to come from Adelaide and it was like 500km away. So they needed a good story.

People sewing their lips in detention was a good story or people burning down the centres was a good story, even though it was relative. But it was getting into a media … We didn’t care about negative publicity. We just wanted to get people to come to detentions and sit.

Another man, Shahin, disagreed with violent protests, but explained that most protests were attempts to reach out to Australians. He wanted Australians to:

Write letters to people in detention centres. Get in touch. There is a wall that this government has created. And this wall needs to be chipped away from both ways. People from inside are doing their way, for you really the best way is to get to know them. As long as that wall is there the government can do what they want. And once it is broken or has holes in it, then it’s very hard.

It is difficult to see self-immolation as relationship-building, as it is such a painful and violent act. But detention and offshore processing have violence riven through their every membrane.

The detention regime’s violence, however, is hidden from view. Omid’s and Hodan’s self-immolations, in addition to being desperate acts of people with no hope, were almost certainly efforts to make the violence of offshore processing visible.

Just before setting himself alight, Omid reportedly said:

This is how tired we are, this action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it anymore.

A friend of Omid’s later that day explained:

We are in hell. Nauru is like a burning hell – all of us are suffering here.

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