International humanitarian non-government organsiation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has released a report titled 'Indefinite Despair' which paints a grim picture of the mental health conditions for refugees and asylum seekers detained on Nauru.

By Daniel Herborn


Posted on December 3, 2018

The report was released on 3 December in the Australian capital, Canberra.

It calls on the government to immediately remove all refugees and asylum seekers from facilities in the Pacific Island nation to prevent further deterioration of their mental health.

The refugees and asylum seekers have been detained on Nauru as part of a deal funded by the Australian government.

The facilities on Nauru were originally opened in 2001 by then Australian Prime Minister John Howard. The centre was closed in 2008 by Kevin Rudd, but was reopened in August 2012 by Julia Gillard’s government and has continued during subsequent Liberal Party governments.

Suicide ideation common among those detained on Nauru

The report, billed as the first independent medical data on the island’s health situation, describes the mental health conditions on Nauru as among the worst MSF has seen anywhere in the world, including on projects for victims of torture.

“The medical data we release today confirms the heart-breaking reality that I witnessed on Nauru,” said MSF Mental Health Activities Manager Dr. Christine Rufener. “Every day I worried which of my patients might attempt to take their own lives because after five years of waiting people had lost all sense of hope.”

MSF treated 208 asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru and found 124 had suicidal thoughts and 63 had made suicide attempts. 12 people, including children, had been diagnosed with the rare psychiatric condition resignation syndrome, meaning they were in a semi-comatose state and could not eat or drink.

“While many of our patients had experienced trauma, it was the Australian policy of indefinite processing that destroyed all their hope for the future and devastated their mental health,” Rufener said.

The mental health conditions of those surveyed were often exacerbated by separation from family members. People who were separated from close family were 40% more likely to be suicidal, the report found.

MSF Australia’s Executive Director Paul McPhun said there was a direct link between the offshore processing system and the disastrous mental health conditions.

“It’s people’s inability to cope, their absolute abject despair, their loss of will, their loss of control over their own lives that’s a direct result of more than five years of detention, that’s creating these really acute symptoms of self harm and suicide,” he said.

Amnesty International likened Nauru facilities to an “open-air prison”

MSF had previously been contracted to deliver mental health services to Nauru locals and the asylum seeker and refugees living there. This arrangement was terminated by the government in October 2018.

The grim report echoes the findings of a 2016 Amnesty International report on conditions for asylum seekers in Nauru. That report had condemned the facilities as an “open-air prison designed to inflict as much suffering as necessary to stop some of the world’s most vulnerable people from trying to find safety in Australia.”

More than 700 people from Australia’s entertainment industry, including Sam Neill and Jackie Weaver, have put their names to an open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, calling for an end to offshore processing of asylum seekers on Nauru.