The island nation of Nauru. Photo NASA

The year after the riot was one of the hottest in decades. It was late September 2014, and a 100-degree monsoon season was approaching. The northeasterly trade winds make Nauru tolerable enough for tourists in the middle months — but not in the camp, which sits in a topographical depression of the island’s central plateau. The effect is of living in a bowl of hot soup. Though Nauru is 26 miles from the equator, only families with babies or toddlers have tents with air conditioning.

So maybe it was the heat putting the detainees on edge that autumn. Or maybe it was everything.

For Maryam it was the guards. On Sept. 29, she was hastily bathing her son, Amir, racing to scrub his messy hair. There’s no hot water in the showers, which wasn’t exactly a problem. The cool water was a relief. But it only lasted two minutes. And when the two minutes were over, a guard from the private security company would tell them to get moving. Maryam’s time was up.

She asked the guard, a Nauruan man, for two extra minutes. “To wash my son’s hair?”
“OK,” he said. “But only if you show me your body.”

As distressed and angry as Maryam was, she knew that kind of request is normal at Nauru Regional Processing Center. Sexual favors are currency — for women especially. Need more shower time? Need a cigarette? That summer, the security company had so many allegations against the staff for sexual bartering that they were obliged to investigate, but the only suspect they managed to identify had already been fired for unrelated performance issues. And that was the end of that.

But after the incident, Maryam decided she needed to tell someone, a social worker with Save the Children. When the social worker heard the story the next day, she asked Maryam, “If this is so common why don’t more people report it?”

“People are afraid if they report it their asylum claims will be rejected,” Maryam replied.
The social worker vowed to meet again with Maryam and locate the guard. Then she filed a short, 13-line report on Maryam’s claim and moved on to the next injustice.

It was a difficult afternoon. In one of the tents, a secondary school student was going on his third day of writing “Fuck you, Mrs. Thomas” on the wall. Of more concern were the threats. The older kids seemed to be organizing something. Whispers leaked out to the camp staff.

“Most asylum seekers won’t be at mess tonight for dinner,” one said obliquely.

“We’re having a meeting at 5 to decide on the type of protest,” said another. “We might kill ourselves with bleach or razors.”

“The people in this protest are crazy,” a boy told his case worker. “They’re going to kill themselves. A protest is happening from 5–8, and they’ll be chanting ‘freedom.’ Everybody knows about this.”

A senior Save the Children social worker overheard a group of girls talking by the volleyball court.

Children detained at Nauru protest their treatment. Photo Amnesty International

“We’re not going to let our parents commit suicide. We have to protest for them. We have to take action ourselves.” The social worker heard the words “lip-stitching.”

Around 3 p.m. the first major incident came in. A girl or woman tried to cut herself with a razor blade, but it wasn’t sharp enough to kill her. Two hours later, multiple asylum seekers were discovered with their lips sewn together in protest. Staffers took them to the clinic where medics removed the threads, and by around midnight the protesters were calm again, eating soup and noodles.

And like that another sweltering day at Nauru Regional Processing Center gave way to an oppressive hot night, with 1,167 men, women and children crammed into stuffy shelters, dreaming of the world’s cruel places: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Pakistan or wherever else was home. Some thought of making it to Australia. They thought of life outside the detention center, perhaps living in the Nauru community, with the 10,000 islanders who seemed to despise them. Or who might rape them, as one asylum seeker feared. She’d been raped before coming to Nauru, and when a Nauru man remarked on her breast size she dreaded it would happen again if a man only got the chance. Many dreamed of killing themselves. A pregnant woman fantasized of killing her baby as soon as it was born. “Then everyone in Australia would care,” she told a staffer.

The truth is they might not. Support for Nauru is essentially bipartisan, and more refugees arrive all the time. What was once a prison colony is now a great nation, with a prison colony of its own. Eight square miles of phosphate rock in the middle of the sea.

This is how it happens:
The most sensible alternative to a life of unbearable hardship is to take a chance on a rubber dinghy in Indonesia pointed at Christmas Island, which is part of Australia. If a refugee survives, this person is not praised for valor but rather ejected 4,000 miles away to another island. Nauru Regional Processing Center. Processing sounds temporary, and it is, in the same way purgatory is temporary. Asylum seekers have been known to wait five years for intercession in the form of a “refugee status determination,” or RSD.

The agony of waiting is what caused the July 2013 riot. RSDs that were promised were not delivered, and asylum seekers protested. They threw rocks at police and set fire to buildings. No one was hurt, but the fires caused $60 million in damage. It was probably the most power they’d ever wielded. Nauruan police arrested 153 people around 9:30 p.m. and charged them with rioting. But nothing changed. If anything, the detainees were more forlorn than ever.

Depression was becoming rampant. The older children noticed it, and the little ones, too, though they couldn’t quite understand. Something was wrong. Happiness should be easy at that age. But not on Nauru.

Once, a teacher noticed her student searching the ground for something while waiting for the bus to take him home from school. He was a nice little boy. He’d been given something that morning, a sticker. What a thing. But now he’d lost it, and he anxiously combed the dirt and gravel. “Leave it,” the teacher said. “You can find it later.” The boy said nothing. He just slumped into a pile and sobbed.

Then the protests of Sept. 30 amounted to nothing, it was as though a reservoir of grief broke through the last levee, and hopelessness flooded the little camp.

All around were thoughts of suicide. One asylum seeker, Yusuf, told his case manager he thought the mood in the camp was worse than ever. A week earlier, the Australian government had taken the unprecedented step of paying Cambodia (as it paid Nauru) to resettle refugees there. The head of the U.N. refugee agency called it “a worrying departure from international norms” because Australia was essentially paying a poor, unsuitable country to take over its own moral and legal obligations. But Cambodia wanted the money, Australia didn’t want the refugees and to this day the plan is still in place.

Information about the arrangement quickly trickled into the camp, and the refugees were furious: No one wanted to go to Cambodia. With scant communication between refugees and immigration officials, false rumors spread that the program was mandatory (it was voluntary). One secondary school student said he heard then-Prime Minister “Tony Abbott is sending people to Cambodia to be killed.”
Yusuf told his case worker: “If one person goes to Cambodia, I will kill myself. Everyone will kill themselves.”

It would be impossible to know the intentions of 1,000 asylum seekers. But death and self-harm seemed on everyone’s minds. At least one child was still walking around with his lips sewn together. An asylum seeker picked up rocks and swallowed them. A mother hit herself on the head and lashed at the walls of her tent. In the month of October, social workers filed 46 reports of people saying they wanted to kill themselves. A 47th said she didn’t want to kill herself because she wasn’t up to it; “could someone at the clinic inject me with something?” She was confident the Australian government would look after her daughter when she was dead. Thirty of the detainees planned to carry out a mass suicide, according to one refugee who wouldn’t disclose the ringleader. But the logistics of any of these deaths would be difficult. There was plenty of rope but too little privacy to accomplish a hanging. Laundry powder was seen as painful and ineffective. The best option seemed to be cutting with razor blades and sharp fragments of the metal fencing that confined them. Some Muslim women, tortured by the sexual harassment of guards and locals, said they would kill themselves if only they could be assured that staff members would not mistreat their dead bodies.

Investigators from Amnesty International documented ‘appalling conditions’ inside the living spaces on Nauru. Photo Amnesty International

There was a sense that a large-scale tragedy — mass acts of violence or suicide — was around the corner and that maybe it would expose their plight to the Australian public. On Oct. 4, a case manager from Save the Children met with an asylum seeker named Raheem, who told her not to worry, that today he felt happy because “this is the calm before the storm.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.

“There’s a group of us planning something big,” Raheem said. “We’re going to show people we’re here. I don’t care if I die here or some other country because sometimes it takes four or five people to make the ultimate sacrifice to save everyone else.”
“Are you planning to harm yourself today?” the case manager asked.
“Not today,” he said. “Not yet. But soon. Why would we tell you when or how?”

To Raheem this seemed perfectly logical: You are all insane for keeping us here like this. We have no other recourse.

But to the case worker Raheem seemed mentally ill. She explained that her job was to protect detainees and suggested he go to the clinic and ask for a psychologist.

On Oct. 14, two secondary school students returned to school after missing a whole week of class. The teacher said they looked “extremely withdrawn,” and they spent the day drawing pictures of children behind bars, children with their lips stitched shut.

The teacher pulled them aside for a long conversation. The children unloaded. They were worried, angry and afraid. They couldn’t stop thinking about visas, about going to Cambodia and, worst of all, about all the people they’d seen slicing themselves open or vomiting laundry detergent.

“Now we just say, ‘Oh, someone tried to kill themselves,’ and it’s, like, normal.”

They said they were trying hard to think of positive things, but they just couldn’t.

Another teacher found her student, Farah, sitting alone on a bean bag chair during lunch crying. The teacher asked if she could sit down and talk.

“I just feel like there’s no God,” Farah said, biting back her tears. “I tried listening to music like you told us to, but it didn’t work. I’m still so sad. Nothing in life is good.”

But there was joy on Nauru. There was soccer and volleyball, an internet room and a playground. There were coloring books, barbecues and an open-mic night for poetry readings. Sometimes buses came and took people on trips to the beach. At the end of the school term, in December, there was even an award ceremony for the refugees. The high schoolers had boyfriends and girlfriends (sometimes to the consternation of their parents). And the children ran around (sometimes to parts of camp where they weren’t supposed to be).

Once, there was a leak in the old prayer tent, and a big pool of shallow water gathered over by the volleyball court. Five kids, maybe 6 or 7 years old, tossed off their shoes and splashed in. For a moment they could have been in a park in Brooklyn, jumping in a puddle after a thunderstorm, or cooling off in a fire hydrant in Melbourne. And like kids having too much fun anywhere, it was only a matter of time before an adult came by and told them to stop it.

In the case worker’s incident report on the children playing in the water, he wrote that he had asked security guards to rope off the puddle to prevent further incursions and noted particularly that some children were not wearing shoes.

He did not note that shoes were difficult to obtain at Nauru detention center. Some children only had thong sandals held together by bits of wire. Other shoes had holes cut into the tips to let out the children’s growing toes. One woman was only given men’s shoes that were too large, and other families had only one pair, which were shared between mothers and daughters.

He did note that the security guards said they were too busy to rope off the puddle, but not that some security guards were perhaps more dangerous than any puddle. Women have reported they came to guards for help or to report sexual abuse and were laughed at. Guards have allegedly hit children or laughed upon seeing a child with lips sewn shut. One case worker walked in on a female guard getting in the face of a male asylum seeker, commanding him to sit down and yelling, “You’re a dick!”

So many of the guards and case workers seemed genuinely concerned. They wanted to help the refugees make the best of an impossible situation. And then some allegations came out that made you question everything.

In September 2014, Ayaan was in the clinic because she’d tried to kill herself with washing powder. Two security guards were in the room, and one, a female, was beside her bed. The other guard left the two alone.

“I like you,” the guard said, stroking her leg and her face. “Your problem is that you haven’t had sex for two years. Why don’t you try having sex with me?”

The autumn of 2014 tested everyone on Nauru, but 2015 brought the refugees no closer to resolution. It’s impossible, for now, to follow the individual cases. We won’t know what became of Maryam, Amir, Yusuf, Raheem, Farah or Ayaan. We do know most asylum seekers are granted refugee status, however, meaning the Nauruan government grants them a temporary visa to live on the island for up to 10 years. Four refugees did volunteer to go to Cambodia, and three of them have since decided to return to Iran and Myanmar, despite the dangers possibly awaiting them. The desperation of the refugees on Nauru is still acute. In April, a 23-year-old Iranian man named Omid set himself on fire and died the next day in a hospital in Brisbane. He’d finally made it to Australia.

Ben Wolford
Ben Wolford is editor of Latterly. His reporting has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere.