New Zealanders have been rightly horrified by Trump’s camps separating children from their parents. Are we similarly outraged by the illegal detention by the Australian government of babies and mothers? Thalia Kehoe Rowden spoke to some mums living in Nauru, waiting for years to be welcomed to a new country.
Content note: this article contains distressing stories about children and mothers in detention, including discussion of birth trauma and suicide.
Zahra* prays for rain so she can wash her babies in clean water. There was only six hours of running water at the Australian-run detention camp she lived in when her first baby was born, and you couldn’t drink it.
She is now an official United Nations refugee, having feared for her life in her home country, but she and her family are still detained on Nauru – just a bit further down the road, without the guards. Water is still unreliable and undrinkable.
She’s lived here for five years.
Maryam* was the first woman to go through the ordeal of giving birth as a detainee in Nauru, sent there by the Australian government, under their policy of not accepting asylum-seekers who arrive at Australian island territories.
“They told me everything would be safe for my baby,” she says. “When I gave birth in the labour ward there was a dog under my bed.”
Maryam and her husband fled Iran six years ago, with other members of their family, and have recently been recognised as genuine refugees by the United Nations. But when the Australian government intercepted the boat they were travelling on, everyone else on the boat was taken to Australia, but Maryam and her husband were sent to Nauru.
No one knows why they were treated so differently.
When Zahra went into labour, as a first-time mother, in a strange country, she was denied an interpreter for the first nine hours. The authorities told her 14-year-old neighbour, who had called for an ambulance, to interpret for her. “I’m only 14, I’m too scared to go in the childbirth room,” her neighbour told them.
Hundreds of asylum seekers have been rejected by Australia over the past under its hardline border policies of the past decade-and-a-half. Instead of investigating their claims for asylum in Australia, as required under the United Nations Refugee Convention, the government instructed border staff to take asylum seekers to Nauru or Manus Island (part of Papua New Guinea).
Asylum seekers are then detained while their claims are investigated, but Australian denies it owes them any care or responsibility.
Over 90% of people diverted to Nauru or Manus have been found by the United Nations authorities to be genuine refugees, but even once their status is settled, they remain in under-resourced countries, in camp-like conditions – but without even the minimal healthcare and security available in the detention centres.
They are released ‘into the community’ which just means a village built by Australia to house them while they are prevented from leaving Nauru.
“We do not feel safe at all,” Maryam says. “Many kids do not go to school because they don’t feel safe. Learning conditions are very bad.”
Children are missing out on education, and even on the basic necessity of play. “Here there is nowhere for me to take my daughter to play and have fun,” Maryam says. “She does not even know what a park is like, because she has never seen one.”
Zahra says, “Living here is very awful. There is nothing to do here, no activities for children. Teenagers don’t have anything to do.”
The entire nation of Nauru is slightly smaller than Rangitoto Island, or the town of Masterton. Since the phosphate mining industry collapsed, leaving environmental devastation behind it, there is almost universal unemployment among the population of around 11,000 people.
Nauru’s economy is now entirely dependent on the refugee-dodging system set up and funded by Australia, but it isn’t equipped to properly look after the several hundred refugees and asylum seekers, many with significant health needs, who now live there.
The island nation has one small hospital, initially built by Australia, but now run locally. Nick Martin, a doctor who worked in Nauru and spoke out about the appalling conditions there, called the hospital “chronically under-equipped”. He accused the Australian government of being obstructive to the extent that it risked the lives of asylum seekers, refusing to allow seriously ill patients to be flown out for care, even when doctors strongly recommend their transfer.
An Australian court in another case – where a family was trying to get psychiatric care for a 10-year-old boy who had repeatedly attempted suicide – heard that “the Nauru hospital was unsafe for surgery and that patients had died during routine operations.”
The Guardian reported last year that Nauruan women facing complex deliveries are regularly flown to Australia, Fiji or Singapore to give birth. This is not the case for refugee and asylum-seeker women.
In 2017 when a refugee from Kuwait asked to deliver her baby in Australia rather than Nauru, she was denied permission until human rights law firm the National Justice Project started legal proceedings. The 37-year-old woman was facing complications including a large tumour or fibroid inside her uterus. She also seemed to be going into pre-eclampsia and the baby was breech.
Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers means already traumatised women are giving birth in poor conditions, and raising their children in island prisons. Children have no clothes, toys or books unless they are sent from one family to another by concerned donors through organisations like Mums 4 Refugees and We Care Nauru.
After five years of being detained in Nauru, Zahra is exhausted. “Raising children in Nauru is not good. I get really tired, I always fight with my husband.”
Like Zahra, Maryam now has official refugee status, but still lives in Nauru, unable to leave, and has recently had her second baby. “I look after my baby as well as I can, but nothing is under my control. I have to beg for even one piece of clothing.”
*Names have been changed.
If you’re reading this and feeling horrified at what people are going through in Nauru – having already fled terror in their homelands – here’s what you can do:
Encourage your Australian friends and family to phone ministers and their members of parliament
Australian politicians think that their hardline policies are acceptable to Australian citizens, even when it means families are separated.
Tell them otherwise.
Here are contact details for all Australian representatives, and here are some ideas for what to say.
Exert your influence over the New Zealand government
Phone Winston Peters (as minister of foreign affairs) and Jacinda Ardern, when she’s back from leave, and tell them what you think.
- Set a reminder on your phone to call their offices every day. Each call is noted and the message passed on. Winston Peters is 04 817 8701; Jacinda Ardern is 04 817 8700.
- Tell these ministers and any other MP you want to contact that you want New Zealand to repeat our offer to take the refugees from Nauru and welcome them in Aotearoa. Tell them you want the government to send a strong message to Australia that the offshore detention system is inhumane and must be stopped.
Support organisations that are fighting the Australian government
Human Rights for All and the National Justice Project bring legal cases to try and enforce the human rights of detainees, especially to medical care in Australia. You can donate to Human Rights for All here and the National Justice Project here.
Mums 4 Refugees is also an advocacy organisation, working to change government policy and support asylum seekers in Australia and beyond. There is an Aotearoa branch whose members organised last week’s protests outside the US Embassy and Consulate – you can join here.
Thalia Kehoe Rowden is a former Baptist minister and current mother and development worker. She writes about parenting, social justice and spirituality at Sacraparental.com.
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