Second refugee sets self on fire in protest of Australia detentions

Refugee rights protest at Broadmeadows, Melbourne. (Credit: Takver44445/flickr)

Just days after a young man died from self-immolation, another refugee at Australia’s Nauru detention center set herself on fire. The incidents bring attention back to the country’s oft-criticized policies for detaining and shipping off migrants and refugees. It is also a new development as the people detained are seeking out ways to publicly protest the conditions they endure.

“This is how tired we are,” said the 23-year-old man named Omid, before starting the fire last week, according to reports. “This action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it anymore.”

It came on the heels of a ruling by the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea that the detention center on the island nation holding people seeking asylum in Australia was illegal. The center on Manus Island is to be closed. Leaders must now determine what to do with the more than 800 people currently held there.

The Australian government continues to take a hard stance against illegal immigration. Offshore detention centers, like the ones in Nauru and Manus, keep people off the mainland entirely. The argument by proponents is that taking a hard line against the practice will discourage illegal boat people and encourage them to go through legal channels.

“It does not alter Australia’s border protection policies – they remain unchanged,” said Peter Dutton, Australia’s immigration minister, in a statement reacting to the Papua New Guinea court ruling. “No one who attempts to travel to Australia illegally by boat will settle in Australia.”

Human rights campaigners say the detainment practice forces people into de facto prisons rife with human rights violations. Amnesty International has documented reports of rape, sexual harassment, and physical and psychological abuse at both the Nauru and Manus centers. A report by the organization in late 2013 found that conditions in Nauru were very poor with the intent of encouraging people to return home, regardless of whether or not they are refugees.

In the case of Omid, the Iranian refugee was held at the Nauru facility for three years. He reportedly had been granted refugee status. But the current Australian policy is to resettle refugees held in the detention facilities elsewhere. Omid’s act illustrates the troubling circumstances of the detention centers and the psychological effects they can have on people detained for long periods of time.

“The desperate actions of this refugee underscore the perilous circumstances found in offshore processing centers run by the Australian government. As Amnesty International has been stressing for several years now, the current system is cruel, inhuman and needs to end,” said Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s senior research adviser for southeast Asia and the Pacific, in a statement.

Today, a Somali woman identified as Hadon or Hodan took the same action as Omid. She is currently being treated in the Nauruan hospital – a facility on the island. However, in the case of Omid the island medical facilities were unable to provide adequate care for his injuries and he was evacuated to Brisbane before dying from his injuries.

Hadon was recently relocated to Nauru from the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation. She was a part of a group of three people who received medical care following a motorcycle accident in late 2015. They were sent to the detention center last week. The two acts of self-immolation in one week is drawing concern that detained refugees are taking desperate measures to protest Australia’s policies.

There is disagreement between major political parties in Australia on how to deal with the problem of refugees, but there is support from both sides for the policy to not allow any illegal arrivals to settle in the country. Continued pressure on the current detention system has yielded little change. But with the Papua New Guinea ruling and the recent violent protests, the Australian government may be forced to make reforms.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.