Nauru’s government has updated its archaic criminal code, striking same-sex relations and suicide off the list of crimes.
While the reforms are good news and bring Nauru’s laws in line with international human rights standards, they will do little to address the struggles facing the island’s most vulnerable population – the hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers exiled there.
The reforms follow recommendations made to Nauru at the United Nations Human Rights Council, and increased international attention to the tiny island since 2013, when Australia began sending asylum seekers to detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island in an effort to deter migrants. There are about 897 refugees and 266 failed asylum seekers living on the island.
All of them face dismal conditions: UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, has noted that the refugees and asylum seekers, many deeply traumatized after fleeing war and repression in their home countries, “live in poor physical conditions, they’re overcrowded, they don’t have access to basic services… they’re not getting the support they need.” For gay refugees, including those who fled countries like Iran after experiencing serious abuses such as torture and rape, things have been even worse: with same-sex conduct criminalized on Nauru until recently, and high levels of homophobic stigma and violence, they are hardly safer than they were at home.
Refugees facing mental health issues, too, are particularly at risk. This April, a Nauru court fined a refugee for attempting suicide, in a misguided attempt to address growing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers hurting themselves. While decriminalizing suicide is good policy, the causes of self-harm on Nauru need urgent attention. Two refugees self-immolated this past month in separate incidents – one died and the other remains in serious but stable condition in a Brisbane hospital. Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection reports show 188 incidents of self-harm involving asylum seekers at Nauru between July 2014 and June 2015.
It’s a relief that same sex relations and suicide are no longer crimes. But ensuring at-risk people can live safely with adequate services and support is something that is still sadly lacking on Nauru. And no degree of improvements to the criminal code can justify Australia’s policy of exiling vulnerable refugees to remote islands which lack safety and capacity to integrate refugees.