Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Anne Frank children of today

I knew that concentration camps still exist where people are trapped and not allowed to leave--places where they die of despair and illness and starvation.  The names Gaza and Yemen come to mind first. And the ICE detention camps in the USA.

I've been reading the personal stories of Holocaust survivors, as well as the journal of "the Polish Anne Frank," Rutka Laskier, who died in Auschwitz in 1943.

But these tragedies are separated from me by eighty years.

Then I heard the story of children currently confined and dying on Nauru island in the South Pacific, where they were sent after being boat refugees from the Middle East arriving on the shores of Australia.  This horrific confinement was described in a report by Reveal, the weekly NPR program produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting, on February 16.

Maya is presented first in the report.  Here is the initial summary of her situation:

Maya is one of hundreds of refugees mostly from Iran, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Pakistan who, for years, have been stuck in an immigrant detention camp on Nauru. That's a small island nation in the middle of the South Pacific.

Though early in the report we hear her speaking normally and somewhat cheerfully, she later falls prey to something called "Resignation Syndrome," as her sister earlier has done.

It's caused by five years on a tiny island where the original residents don't want her and her people.  The island is just eight square miles, right on the equator.  Australia does not allow asylum seeker who arrive by boat to stay in the country.  They are sent away to Nauru or another island.

The US and Australia had an agreement to accept the refugees living on Nauru and another island, but when dt became president in the US and banned immigrants from seven countries, these refugees were among those banned.

It was too dangerous for Maya to go to school; native students bully the refugees.  At first she read books from a library, but then she gave up on life completely and stopped eating.

An Australian reporter, Olivia Rousset, reached Maya through a video chat site.  It's nearly impossible for journalists to get permission and a visa to visit the island. 

One of the doctors visiting these refugees on Nauru explained that the children are

"...curled up in a fetal position hidden under blankets in dark rooms, unresponsive to anyone."  They weren't in a coma but they may as well have been.

The report also covers a single mother with three daughters.  When her daughter Alia was starving and at risk of permanent organ damage, Australia finally allowed Alia to be taken to a hospital in Australia with their mother. Alia was also cutting herself and saying that she wanted to die.  

An older sister, Lena, remained on Nauru to watch over the youngest daughter, Haneen.

Then Haneen started to get withdrawal syndrome followed by resignation syndrome after her mother and sister went to Australia.  Separation of some family members from others was a big part of the problem.

Listen to the full report or read the transcript at Five Years on Nauru.  

Thank you to Reveal and Olivia Rousset for bringing the stories of these people to light.  Thank you to the National Justice Project for their work to bring the children to Australia and reunite families.  Rousset's reporting first aired on Background Briefing, produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Spoiler alert: both families were finally all allowed to go to Australia on a temporary basis.  Only five children remained on Nauru as of Feb. 16, 2019.  But hundreds of adults and young adults are still confined there and some have resignation syndrome.