‘What is our future?’: the Nauru detention centre was empty. Now 100 asylum seekers are held there

<span>Asylum seekers say they fear they will spend years trapped on Nauru, even up to a decade as previous groups of refugees did.</span><span>Composite: Getty images</span>
Asylum seekers say they fear they will spend years trapped on Nauru, even up to a decade as previous groups of refugees did.Composite: Getty images

“We don’t know how long we will be here, what will happen to us. Our situation is very difficult.”

Mohammad Bashir Anjum, a Pakistani asylum seeker held on Nauru for four months, is one of the few able to make contact outside the island.

On a scratchy phone line – immigration officials confiscated his smartphone – he tells Guardian Australia: “the depression is very bad, very bad. What is our future, no one can tell us.”

Related: Number of asylum seekers on Nauru jumps as Australia transfers 37 people who arrived by boat

Australia’s sole remaining offshore processing centre was ostensibly closed – after a decade of controversial operation – in the middle of last year, with the last refugee transferred to Australia in June.

But the detention centre spent just months in abeyance.

In September, the first “new” cohort of asylum seekers was transferred from Australia. And the number held has been slowly – but steadily – growing. With the arrival of 37 asylum seekers in June, there are now approximately 100 asylum seekers held by Australia on the island.

About 85 are being held inside the RPC1 detention centre – with different cohorts held separately – while about 15 are in the Nauru community. None are children. One refugee, who has been on Nauru since 2013, chose to stay there last year.

Asylum seekers now say they fear they will spend years trapped on the island, even up to a decade as previous groups of refugees did.

Anjum, who has twice been forced to flee politically targeted violence in his home country, said uncertainty for asylum seekers over their futures was devastating.

“Everyone, everyone, everyone is delay[ed]. No one knows what will happen to them, when they can see their family again, where they can live safely.

“We can’t see our future, everyone is uncertain, everyone is afraid, they ask ‘What will happen to us?’. Will they forget us, just leave us here? How many years, 10 years?”

Anjum was part of a group of 39 asylum seekers who arrived by boat from Indonesia on Australia’s north-west coast in February. Having walked more than 30km, they were intercepted at Beagle Bay.

Anjum said many of those in his group had faced severe persecution in their home countries, and, since being transferred to Nauru, had been asked numerous times to “tell their story again and again”. He said he was asked on three separate occasions to detail the persecution he’d faced. “And after the third time, I told them, ‘This is all the story, you know it, you ask me again and again, and this is terrible for me, for my mental health.’”

Anjum said medical care was inadequate – “really limited” – and that people who were acutely ill could not get specialist treatment for serious and degenerative illnesses.

The Guardian has been told there are general practice doctors on rotation available to those held inside the detention centre camp known as RPC1. But medical staff on the island have said health care is extremely limited.

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Dentistry is only available through the Republic of Nauru hospital and asylum seekers require public health clearance to access it, a process which can take months.

There is no dedicated torture and trauma counselling available to asylum seekers, and specialist care – such as ear nose and throat, eye, renal, and hearing specialists – are not available.

Asylum seekers have begun refugee status determination interviews – the formal process to recognise an asylum seeker’s claim to protection – assessed against the refugees convention, to which Nauru and Australia are party.

“But we ask what will happen next to us, how long it will take, and they tell us ‘We don’t know’,” Anjum said.

Heidi Abdel-Raouf, the detention casework policy lead for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said caseworkers were deeply concerned by an emerging health crisis on the island.

“We know from what happened previously on Nauru over years, that if health problems aren’t treated properly, preventable illnesses can lead to serious conditions and even death in some cases. Already people on Nauru are reporting they aren’t able to access specialist assessment and treatment for a range of conditions.”

The current group of asylum seekers is understood to be outside Australia’s third-country resettlement pathways to the US, New Zealand and Canada, Abdel-Raouf said.

She said the Australian government needed to be transparent about the resettlement options for those currently held on Nauru.

“We must not forget that people have the legal right to seek safety and asylum. It is beyond comprehension the Albanese government is continuing Australia’s cruel legacy of banishing people offshore simply because they sought safety by sea, and to prevent political fallout from the opposition.”

Abdel-Raouf said authorities on the island had kept asylum groups separate – and so unable to share information – and restricted people’s ability to contact family members, support agencies or advocacy organisations. Asylum seekers have had smartphones taken from them – and with them access to apps like WhatsApp to communicate with family – replaced by “brick” dumb phones without cameras, which means they cannot take photos to document their detention.

The Guardian sent detailed questions to the department of home affairs regarding the operation of the Nauru offshore processing centre, the number of people held there, their access to medical care, and resettlement options, but did not receive a response to those questions.

A spokesperson for the department said Australia’s policy was unchanged.

“People who attempt to travel to Australia by boat without a valid Australian visa have zero chance of settling in Australia,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said the Australian government was committed to maintaining Nauru as an “enduring” offshore processing centre.

The spokesperson did not say whether those currently held on Nauru were eligible for resettlement in New Zealand, the US or Canada, only that “Australia will support the Government of Nauru to implement durable migration outcomes”.

The spokesperson said “there has always been at least one doctor on Nauru” to provide services to asylum seekers held there.

“International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) deliver health services, including torture and trauma counselling, through a multi-disciplinary team at the regional processing centre medical centre and in conjunction with the Republic of Nauru Hospital.”

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The Nauru government is responsible for the “implementation of regional processing arrangements” the spokesperson said, supported by Australia.

Welfare and garrison services at the detention centre is run by US private prisons operator MTC, which has a $420m contract with the Australian – not the Nauruan – government.

The offshore processing centre on Nauru is Australia’s sole “enduring” offshore site, after the detention centre on PNG’s remote Manus island was ordered shut by that country’s supreme court, which found the detention centre was unconstitutional. Australia was forced to compensate the thousands it had illegally detained there.

More broadly, Australia’s offshore processing policy and practices have been consistently criticised by the United Nations, human rights groups and by refugees themselves.