Melbourne, Australia – Nauru is a tiny, 34 square kilometre island of barren land in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. Despite the palm trees and picturesque blue waters, the island, home to around 10,000 people, is far from a tropical paradise.
The history of detention centres on Nauru is brief, but the island has been central to Australia’s asylum policies.
It first housed a detention centre for asylum seekers between 2001 and 2008, under the so-called Pacific Solution of Australia’s conservative Liberal Party, which aimed to stop refugees coming to Australia by holding them on Nauru and nearby Manus Island.
When the centre-left Labor party came to power in 2007, with the promise of a more compassionate response to those seeking asylum, Australia closed the offshore detention centres and, in 2008, moved refugees to centres on the Australian mainland.
Still, the number of asylum seekers arriving on boats continued to rise, peaking at 17,000 people in 2012, according to Department of Immigration statistics.
Under attack by conservatives for being weak on border security, Labor turned back to Nauru for a solution, and the centre was reopened in 2012.
Today, it is home to 543 asylum seekers, including 70 children.
‘The worst thing about Nauru’
The asylum seekers held on Nauru spend their days in limbo. The centre is fenced in, with large green tents pitched outside where refugees must endure the tropical heat.
One Iranian refugee, Amir, who asked that his full name and age be withheld, has been on the island for three years. He said he fled Iran when threats were made against his life and travelled to Indonesia where he boarded a boat for Australia.
“The worst thing about the Nauru is the waiting. Nothing ever happens here,” Amir told Al Jazeera by phone.
Trapped on the island, refugees wait as their claims for official refugee status are assessed by the UN refugee agency the UNHCR – a process that can take years.
Although the vast majority of claims are successful – government data shows that in 2013, 88 percent of asylum applications were approved – the Australian government insists that those detained on Nauru will not resettle in Australia.
The only way off the island is to agree to resettlement in Cambodia – or return to the countries from which the refugees have fled.
In 2015, Australia signed a $40m deal with Cambodia to resettle refugees held on Nauru there. Since the deal, only five refugees have accepted the offer to go to Cambodia, according to Australia’s Department of Immigration. In March, Immigration Minister Petter Dutton confirmed that two had been returned to their country of origin.
Running detention centres
The Australian government doesn’t run the centre directly. It is operated by Broadspectrum Limited, an Australian company contracted by the government, which also runs a centre on Manus Island.
But the company has faced controversy. Last year, it was forced to change its name from Transfield Services to Broadspectrum Limited after the founding family distanced itself from the current owners because of alleged human rights abuses in the offshore detention centres.
The company has admitted to receiving reports of sexual harassment and abuse carried out by staff at the facilities.
Last month, Spanish company Ferrovial bought a controlling share in Broadspectrum Limited.
For those on Nauru, the long and indefinite detention has taken a toll. There has been a recent spate of suicides and attempted suicides on the island. One immigration department report obtained by Australia’s Fairfax media showed that in July 2015 there were 188 incidents of self-harm on Nauru, an average of one every two days.
In April, a video emerged of 23-year-old Iranian refugee, Omid Masoumali, setting himself on fire at the centre in protest against his imprisonment during a visit from UNHCR officials. He later died from his injuries. Another refugee, a young Somali woman, is clinging to life after self-immolating a few days later.
A 26-year-old man from Bangladesh also died earlier in May after intentionally overdosing on medication.
“I was going to kill myself as well, I had the idea. Many of us here think about suicide,” Amir explained.
“When you can’t change anything, when you don’t have hope, then what’s the difference between being alive or dead?” he asked.
Psychiatrist Peter Young told Al Jazeera that the mental health services at the centre are drastically understaffed and that there is little mental health professionals can do to help those dealing with the psychological consequences of years of detention.
Young, who between 2011 and 2014 was the director of mental health services for private contractor International Health and Mental Services (IHMS), which provides healthcare for Australia’s on and offshore detention centres, said he was not surprised by the recent suicides.
“The whole system of detention is geared towards removing hope for people, so they agree to go back to where they came from. The [immigration] department told us this was the objective and that we all had to sing from the same hymnbook,” Young said.
“Everyone who works in mental health knows the main thing which makes people suicidal is hopelessness, so there was a fundamental contradiction with our professional ethics,” he added.
Blame game and activism
The Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the situation by forwarding a press release from the Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, which was released earlier this month following the self-immolation of the Somali woman.
In the statement, Dutton attacks refugee advocates who are regularly in phone contact with those on Nauru, accusing them of “encouraging them [asylum seekers] to engage in behaviours they believe will pressure the government to bring them to Australia”.
But not everyone in Australian politics has adopted this position. Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who is pressing for better treatment of refugees, told Al Jazeera that she felt Dutton’s comments blaming refugee advocates for suicides were “appalling” and “baseless”.
“Advocates are the only ones showing people compassion and empathy and keeping people alive,” she said.
Shen Narayanasamy, executive director of No Business in Abuse (NBIA), explained that “Australia can’t run these centres in other sovereign nations themselves, so these centres won’t run without corporations”.
The group runs a campaign that seeks to ramp up economic pressure on those engaging in the detention centre business.
In September, Broadspectrum Limited responded to the allegations of human rights abuses levelled at them by the campaign, calling them “disingenuous, inflammatory and misleading“.
In an official statement, the company stated: “We are concerned with the potential impact that any misinformation may have on our investors and more than 25,000 employees across a range of sectors … no charges have been laid against any of our staff in respect to any dealings with asylum seekers on Nauru or Manus Provinces.”
But NBIA continues to encourage local officials and investment funds not to work with companies involved in detaining refugees.
Last month, Ferrovial announced that it would not bid for a new five-year contract to run the offshore centres, expected to be worth $2.7bn, when the current contract ends in February 2017.
“Any company needs to know they face a massive public relations risk in running these centres,” said Narayanasamy, explaining that any new company could expect to come under pressure (PDF) from NBIA.
Stories of those trapped on Nauru have made headlines around the world, but Amir’s family remains oblivious as to his whereabouts.
“Every day when I talk to my mum, she thinks I am in a detention centre in Australia. She asks me what is going on in Nauru. I tell her not to mention those people; they are helpless people. They are condemned,” he tells them.
“I am one of them, but they don’t know.”
Follow Jarni Blakkarly on Twitter @jarniblakkarly