Australia slams refugee advocates over self-harm cases

A vigil being held last Saturday for Iranian refugee Omid Masoumali, who died after setting himself on fire on Nauru island.
A vigil being held last Saturday for Iranian refugee Omid Masoumali, who died after setting himself on fire on Nauru island.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SYDNEY • Australia blamed refugee advocates yesterday for "encouraging" asylum seekers held in remote camps to commit acts of self-harm after a woman set herself on fire, while the United Nations renewed its criticism of Australia's harsh immigration policy.

Australian officials said an unidentified 21-year-old Somali woman was in a critical condition after she set herself alight at an Australian detention camp on the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru on Monday, in the second such incident in a week.

A 23-year-old Iranian man also set himself on fire last week in protest against his treatment on Nauru, and later died. The Somali woman has been transferred to Australia for treatment, officials said.

Under Australia's hardline immigration policy, asylum seekers intercepted trying to reach the country after paying people smugglers are sent to camps on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea for processing. They are told they will never be settled in Australia.

The harsh conditions and reports of systemic child abuse at the camps have drawn criticism inside and outside Australia, causing a major headache for Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as he campaigns for election, likely to be in July.

Australia, however, has vowed that there will be no change to the policy, which has been pursued by successive governments.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton yesterday acknowledged there has been a rise in cases of self-harm in the camps, but accused refugee advocates of giving the asylum seekers false hope that they would one day be settled in Australia.

He said some advocates were "encouraging some of these people to behave in a certain way".

However, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Australia said in a statement that such incidents in the camps, which hold asylum seekers fleeing violence in the Middle East, Afghanistan and South Asia, were a result of Australia's tough offshore detention policies.

A boat believed to be carrying asylum seekers from Sri Lanka has been intercepted near the remote Australian Indian Ocean territory of the Cocos Islands, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported yesterday. If confirmed to be carrying asylum seekers, it would be the first such vessel to have arrived in Australian territory in nearly two years.

A spokesman for Mr Dutton's office refused to confirm or deny that such a vessel has been intercepted.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2016, with the headline 'Australia slams refugee advocates over self-harm cases'. Print Edition | Subscribe