(CNN) UN human rights officials have urged Australia to provide immediate medical aid to more than 800 asylum seekers and migrants being held offshore after a spate of suicide attempts.
There have been dozens of cases of attempted suicide or self-harm on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea in the last month since the Australian federal election, according to claims made by refugees and advocates.
At least eight men are alleged to have harmed themselves since Monday, including a Sudanese man who set himself on fire and an Iranian who attempted to hang himself but was cut down by guards, Tamil refugee Shaminda Kanapathi said via WhatsApp from Manus.
In a statement released Wednesday, seven UN human rights officials said they were “deeply concerned” about the condition of hundreds of men, who come from a number of countries including Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. Many have been trapped on the islands for six years.
“The situation of their indefinite and prolonged confinement, exacerbated by the lack of appropriate medical care amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment according to international standards,” the UN rights experts said in the statement.
Even if found to be refugees, the asylum seekers are not permitted to settle in Australia and must either go home, hope for relocation to a third country, or remain in Papua New Guinea or the remote island of Nauru. Some are also sent to the United States.
Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton told the ABC on Sunday that 531 had been settled in the US under the deal struck with former US President Barack Obama, while another 295 applications were being processed.
However, he said it was unlikely that all 1,250 places agreed under the deal would be filled. In exchange, Australia took in two Rwandans accused of murdering Western tourists in Uganda in 1999.
‘The men have lost hope’
Kanapathi is one of more than 300 men who applied for US resettlement but was rejected. His only option now, like many others, is to stay on PNG, a nation of 8.2 million people to the north of Australia. “The men have lost hope and are falling one by one. The situation is out of control & needs to be stopped,” he tweeted Wednesday.
Joyce Chia, director of policy with the non-profit Refugee Council of Australia said every day the group was receiving calls from advocates troubled that men who had shown resilience for years in a difficult situation were starting to crumble.
“We wake up every day hoping that somebody hasn’t taken their own life,” Chia said. “We are in an incredibly critical situation… seasoned professionals have never seen anything like this.”
Since the election there have been over 90 suicide attempts & incidents of self harm by more THAN 62 highly depressed men on #Manus It is getting worse, the men have lost hope and are falling one by one. The situation is out of control & needs to be stopped. #auspol #Closethecamp
— Shamindan (@Shamindan1) June 19, 2019
Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian-Kurdish journalist who has been detained on Manus Island for six years, said Australia had created a “big tragedy in front of the world’s eyes.””They must stop this barbaric policy and let us free, we committed no crime… The only thing that helps refugees in Manus and Nauru is freedom. Only freedom helps people and the only solution is freedom,” he said via WhatsApp.The United Nations has repeatedly called Australia out on its immigration policy, most recently in a letter delivered in April where the government was asked to explain how its policy of indefinite detention is compatible with international human rights law.
In its written response, provided by the UN, Australia said the health of refugees was of “paramount importance” to the governments of Australia, PNG and Nauru. The response, dated June 3, added that Australia “does not accept the allegations that asylum seekers and refugees lack access to appropriate healthcare in Nauru and PNG.”Dutton told the ABC that he was looking for ways to remove refugees from the islands.
“I want people off Manus and Nauru overnight, but I want to do it in a way that doesn’t restart boats, and kids drowning again at sea,” he said.
Australia’s Home Affairs department told CNN Wednesday that the government provides “significant support” to PNG and Nauru to provide “comprehensive health services” to refugees.
But Chia said those health services are not enough to help refugees who had lost all hope.
“The situation is created by a loss of hope… what we need is a circuit breaker, so people can see a way out,” Chia said.