*Warning: this article contains graphic content and references to suicide
Walking out of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) Detention Advocacy office, my breath catches at the sight on the back of the door. I’m looking at a sea of young faces. The door is covered in printed photos of children, with names written on masking tape turning each tiny face into a person. The sight is haunting.
ASRC Detention Advocacy Manager, Natasha Blucher, has carved some time out of her demanding schedule to give an insight into the critical work her team are doing right now to save the children currently detained on Nauru.
As the only independent organisation providing casework over the phone to Nauru and Manus, Natasha’s team of three are facing what appears to be an insurmountable crisis. The Australian Government is holding 800 people seeking asylum and refugees in indefinite detention on Nauru, a tiny pacific island the size of Melbourne Airport.
Of these 800 people, 102* are children. At least 30 of these children are currently in critical condition, struggling with life-threatening illness. The environment is hostile, the services are sparse, and Australian Border Force is actively blocking medical evacuations.
Many children are suffering from severe mental health issues, are self harming and have made repeated suicide attempts.
As the only Australian team providing casework to families on Nauru, the ASRC Detention Advocacy team has become central in the fight for their lives. The team is unique not just in their ability to deliver casework; but in the success they are having at getting children evacuated for emergency medical attention. Over the past 12 months the team and their legal partners have evacuated 31 children* and their families through legal intervention, along with a number of single adults.
This success is due in no small part to the fact that both Natasha and the Detention Advocacy Coordinator, Sandra, have had first hand experience working on the ground in Nauru.
“I think that’s why we have so much success in what we do, because we understand the way the system works on the inside.”
“I worked in the RPC [Regional Processing Centre] when all the families were in the closed camp environment. And our Coordinator Sandra…she went to Nauru with CONNECT, who was the refugee case work service at that time on Nauru. So between us she understands the way the community on Nauru works and all the services there, and I understand how the RPC works. So we know how to navigate the entire [situation].”
“We intake the client, we figure out what’s going on and case note all of those conversations, all of the incidents that have happened with their child or themselves, and then we’ll obtain medical reports that are needed, get their medical records. Then when it’s ready we refer it to a lawyer and they will go to court.”
They are joined by Kash Wall, who brings to the team international experience working with NGO’s in refugee camps in Greece. Their combined experience and expertise gives them the skill to navigate an extremely complex environment to deliver untraditional casework to clients on Nauru.
“We use a casework framework so everytime we talk to a client we’re case-noting the content of the conversation and we apply casework ethical frameworks to everything we do. We are writing letters that we send as professionals qualified to make assessments. So we can say ‘we’ve assessed this person as a high suicide risk and therefore you need to do X’.”
“But the difference here [in Nauru] is the environment itself is hostile, so you have to be really creative in plugging in external services or advocating to the services available.”
“The reason it’s not so much standard case work as it is advocacy is because the services are substandard and they are often quite harmful. You have to kind of hammer away at [the services] to get them to do what they are supposed to be doing.
“For example today I had a call with a parent whose young child made a suicide attempt last week. They told me that they took their child to the RON Hospital for immediate medical attention, and then to IHMS the day after for mental health support, but nobody has come back to see her or give them an appointment since then.
“This single parent is on their own, just watching her for 24 hours a day, even though the mental health service knows she tried to kill herself. So we write to IHMS and say ‘hi, remember young girl that attempted suicide last week? Well her parent can’t sleep, and the only time they can get a break is if an older sibling takes a shift. This child is at extremely high risk of suicide, and if she dies you will be held responsible, because you have a duty of care. Please go and see her.”
“When you put things in correspondence to them it make it more difficult for them to ignore. Because they know that if that child kills themselves, we’ll be saying; ‘hey here’s a letter that we wrote to you telling you this child was at risk, and you didn’t do anything about it. Therefore you’ve breached your duty of care,’ she says.
While evacuating the children and their families is first and foremost the primary goal for the Detention Advocacy team, their work plays a much larger role in the ongoing and long term fight for justice.
“It makes them accountable, because part of the problem is they are in this kind of black hole over there in Nauru or Manus. They think they can do whatever they want. They think no one will know if they don’t do their jobs properly. And a lot of the purpose is holding them accountable when it’s critical, but also documenting all of this.
“Because we’re case-noting all of this, in the future when there is some sort of Royal Commission into the offshore processing system, then we’ll be able to say; ‘hey look at all this body of evidence. Look at all these medical records showing what was happening to these kids, that they were declining and IHMS and the Australian government knew.”
In response to the growing crisis, the ASRC is now recruiting for a fourth member to build the Detention Advocacy team’s capacity. However, discussing the criticality of the demand, it becomes clear while the new resource will no doubt save countless lives, to truly make an impact they still need a lot more help.
“The fact is because we are the only organisation that’s doing this, and there’s 800 people on Nauru and around 700 on Manus, and there is still only the four of us, it’s still not enough. At the moment our waitlist is at 80 [across Nauru and Manus] and these situations with people’s mental health escalate very, very quickly. We often can’t get to them before the escalation point, so we are constantly working with people in crisis.”
Faced with such an unyielding caseload and traumatic environment, you can’t help but wonder how they keep going, and how they manage to keep those suffering in such inhumane conditions looking forward. The answer? Hope.
“We try and give as much hope as possible, at every opportunity. We clutch at straws, sometimes that means just saying to a parent ‘they can’t possibly keep your child on there forever, it’s just impossible’ or ‘they’re only 10 years old, they have 70 good years ahead of them, it will be ok, there is hope’.”
Asked what the hardest part of the job is personally, Natasha takes a moment before replying.
“Dealing with the really graphic details of what is happening to these kids.”
She then tells me a story of one of the most horrific phone calls she has received in the past month. The details are too graphic to share here. It paints a picture of living hell and a situation in which a mother simply cannot protect her children from witnessing severe violence. It’s traumatising.
“It was just awful. It’s just constantly talking to parents who are just at their wits end. Just listening to them describing exactly what their kids have done, or sending you videos of their kids having meltdowns and banging their head against the wall. It’s incredibly graphic. It’s the harm to kids, then listening to it a hundred times a day.”
Sitting with Natasha, hearing first hand what it’s like to listen to these calls, to feel helpless as children fight for their lives, as families beg for help; for the first time, despite reading updates and working with this content every day, the reality of the situation truly sinks in.
These are not fictional children. They are real, tiny people who have been robbed of their childhood and forced to endure horrific conditions. They continue to suffer severe trauma resulting from years of abuse by the security hired as their protectors.
Small kids who should be in school, should be laughing and playing, learning their alphabet, exploring the world. Who are instead actively trying to kill themselves, struggling with completely preventable life-threatening mental health issues. Kids who instead of watching cartoons are watching adults around them self-harm. It’s incomprehensible. But it’s true. It’s real. And it’s happening right now.
As we wrap up the interview, feeling full of anger, sadness and disbelief, Natasha smiles and says “you should come have a look at the back of our door”. The door with the haunting images. “It’s our happy door, it’s all the kids we’ve worked to get off the island, who are now here in Australia, safe and receiving treatment.”
And just like that the power of this team to deliver hope and motivation becomes abundantly clear. While the fight is far from over, and the lives are on the line, there is success, and in success there is hope.
Help the ASRC Detention Advocacy team continue to fight for the children on Nauru. Your donation can help the ASRC grow the capacity of the Detention Advocacy team, and continue to provide legal assistance to evacuate critical children and advocate for the permanent end to offshore detention.
If you are experiencing mental health issues or suicidal feelings contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or BeyondBlue 1300 224 636. If it is an emergency please call 000.Leave a reply →