If you are a young woman in Somalia today, what kind of life can you hope to live?
Two decades of civil conflict has ravaged your country. Warring parties continue to wound and kill civilians, and provoke the displacement of many.
Of a total population of 10.8 million, 1.1 million Somalis are internally displaced. And by the UN’s count (as of 2014), the same number of people have also fled the country as refugees.
If you are internally displaced in Somalia, life is hard. Forced to leave your home to escape harm and violence, you are thrust into an existence that is – by many accounts – one of the gravest humanitarian situations on the planet.
You live in a makeshift shelter in a congested, overburdened camp and face constant risks to your health, safety and dignity.
Sexual and gender-based violence is common throughout the country, and if you are a woman or girl living in a displacement camp, you are disproportionately vulnerable to being sexually assaulted, raped, beaten, stabbed and killed by armed assailants – including members of government forces – who operate with impunity.
But even if you are fortunate enough to avoid this fate and flee Somalia as a refugee, life can also be hard.
If you are a refugee who has tried to seek asylum in Australia, life can be unbearable.
21 year-old Hodan Yasi had left Somalia and attempted the journey to Australia. I don’t know her specific circumstances, and why she fled her homeland, but it’s not difficult to imagine that she dreamt of a better life in a country untouched by war, safe from violence and persecution.
Instead what she found was despair.
Though she was recognised as a refugee, she was not permitted to resettle in Australia. In 2013, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who is tipped to announce his candidacy for UN Secretary General, announced that asylum seekers who arrive by boat would have no chance of being resettled in Australia.
In the name of “stopping people smugglers” and “saving lives at sea”, Australia is warehousing people offshore, in harsh and unsafe conditions, for indefinite periods of time. Refugees are given a false choice to either return home where they would face persecution, and possibly death, or to live in Manus Island, Nauru or Cambodia: developing countries that lack the capacity to adequately resettle refugees.
On Wednesday last week, Hodan was forcibly returned to Nauru after she had been brought to Australia for medical treatment. She apparently screamed that she wanted to stay in Australia rather than go back to the remote island where she had been for three years, but her pleas were ignored. On Monday, just days later, she doused herself in accelerant and set herself alight. This young woman survived Somalia, only to be driven to suicide by Australia’s policies. She is currently in a Brisbane hospital in critical condition.
Last week Omid Masoumali, an Iranian refugee aged 23, also set himself on fire and later died after enduring prolonged, unnecessary agony. Before he lit the fatal flame, he reportedly yelled: “This is how tired we are, this action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it anymore.”
Immigration minister Peter Dutton has cynically suggested that Hodan and Omid’s actions were protests aimed at pressuring the government into changing its policy. He even made the serious accusation, thus far without any evidence, that refugee advocates are “encouraging” acts of self-harm.
The mental health crisis among detainees, including children, within our offshore detention system is well documented. It is hard to believe someone would burn themselves alive in the hopes that it would give them a chance to resettle in Australia. More likely they have been overcome by mental illness and a deep, unfathomable anguish. But is this so surprising? In an environment where people are mistreated, stripped of hope, and pushed to despair, is suicide not a predictable outcome?
Our two major parties will say a “hardline approach” to refugees is necessary to save lives at sea. Don’t believe it. While no one is pretending a solution to Australia’s refugee situation is easy, there are more humane, rights-based approaches to this problem. You can start reading about that here, here, and here.
Just don’t expect our politicians to talk about it.
How many more people need to die?
I feel sad and angry as I write this. Hodan and Omid came here asking for our help. We ruined their lives instead.