Nauruan Government Prevents Médecins Sans Frontières From Assisting Asylum Seekers


After 11 months in Nauru, the medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders, or MSF for short) was told by the government to end its services within 24 hours. The group in Nauru was providing important mental health services to refugees detained by the Australian government, who are waiting for processing.

According to the BBC, Nauru is one of the many private processing centres across the Pacific Ocean where refugees are held for Australia. These centres were one of the many policies introduced by the new Australian coalition government to reduce the number of asylum seekers (the majority coming from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Rohingya) coming from Indonesia on boats.

In the past 20 years, approximately 12,000 to 13,000 people were given asylum in Australia. However, as numbers began to increase (13,750 asylum seekers in 2015-2016 and a one-time acceptance of 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq) the Australian government responded by introducing the “stop the boats” policy – a series of drastic measures towards asylum seekers. This includes Operation Sovereign Borders, which allowed the Australian military to use military vessels to intercept migrant boats and return refugees to Indonesia.

Part of the “stop the boats” policy required that asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat be taken to an offshore processing centre and instead be settled in Nauru or Papua New Guinea. However, human rights groups report that Nauru camps do not meet the needs of its residents, with unsanitary, cramped conditions and a total lack of infrastructure. Although it has been an ‘open centre’ since 2015, allowing its residents to come and go as they please, there are not many places for people to go.

Because of such abhorrent conditions, many asylum-seeking children and teenagers who have been held in Nauru for most of their lives have begun experiencing a serious and rare psychiatric disorder called “resignation syndrome”, where people respond to severe trauma by withdrawing from life, including from eating and drinking. The amount of assistance provided is heavily restricted by the Nauruan government. MSF has stated, “the lack of mental-health support available affects both the Nauruan population and the asylum-seekers and refugees living on the island as part of the Australian government’s policy of offshore processing.”

In response to their operations being forcefully closed, an MSF spokesperson said that “at this stage, MSF wishes to reiterate our strong commitment to providing quality mental health care to all those in need on the island. We are extremely concerned that the health of our patients may be affected by this decision and urge the authorities to grant us permission to continue our lifesaving work.”

Though Australia, as a sovereign state, has the right to control its borders, it is hard to interpret such immigration policy as other than deporting potential refugees. First, refusing to allow these asylum seekers from stepping on Australian soil raises questions about processing. How can one be a refugee if they cannot access the country? Would you not just be continuing at sea? What is the necessary due process? Have the authorities satisfied all their obligations?

Second, even if one is detained by Australian authorities, being placed in another country questions whose sovereignty you are placed under. Are you detained by Australia or Nauru?  There is something inherently contradictory about the claim that an asylum seeker is being processed when they are placed in a different sovereign state.

This is not to mention the abhorrent conditions the asylum seekers find themselves in. In a time of confusion and change, asylum seekers should be kept informed. Instead, people are caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucracy affecting their livelihood. It seems I am not the only person feeling this way – according to the Guardian, members of the Australian Labor Party have had issues with these policies. One can only hope that these policies end.