Melbourne, Australia – Jamal’s voice drifted over the phone, void of any emotion.
“I told them, ‘you guys don’t have any solution for me. You guys are not helping me. I’m really tired of this life’ … I put the fuel on myself and [I] burned myself there.”
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A refugee held in Australian immigration detention, Jamal was describing an incident in 2019 in which he set himself on fire in front of medical staff and security personnel at the offshore detention facility on the Pacific Island of Nauru.
The 38-year-old had come to Australia by boat in 2013, fleeing persecution in his home country. He had worked with Western forces in Afghanistan, but under Australian immigration policy, he was moved to the Nauru detention facility.
When he self-immolated in 2019, it was out of desperation after five years of indefinite detention.
“Life was really hard there for me,” he told Al Jazeera, “and we didn’t have any hope.”
Jamal has now been held in Australian immigration detention for almost nine years.
Following the self-immolation, he was moved to a hospital in the Australian city of Brisbane and is now being held at a hotel in the country’s second-largest city, Melbourne. The hotel made headlines earlier in the year when nearly half of the refugees held there contracted COVID-19.
Jamal told Al Jazeera the pain of self-immolation was “soul-taking”.
But the “mental torture” of his situation at the time was just too much, he said.
“I don’t understand how I did it,” Jamal said, “… no one wants to do that.”
When he was first sent to Nauru in 2013, refugees on the island were housed in tents in closed camps. These camps made headlines repeatedly for their inhumane conditions, from dilapidated housing facilities to rape and sexual assault.
Over the years, the camps were opened up, and the refugees began to be allowed into the broader island of Nauru, but this carried its own dangers and stressors, said Jamal.
“Nauru is a tiny island,” he said, “it’s a really tiny island. It’s like a prison for us where you can’t move, [you’re] just stuck.”
Refugees faced serious violence from locals, he said — they were beaten, bullied, and attacked.
This violence has been widely documented. One report from Amnesty International in 2016 recorded cases where locals “cursed and spat” at refugees, “threw bottles and stones, swerved vehicles in their direction as they walked or rode on motorbikes”.
The Australian government was “well aware of the abuses on Nauru” the report said, with countless human rights groups — and even a Senate Select Committee and a government-appointed independent expert — highlighting the issue.
Noeline Balasanthiran Harendran, a lawyer who has represented refugees held on Nauru, said that the courts have seen countless evidence of these abuses too.
“We represent many, many clients who have given evidence,” she said. “We’ve had 13-year-old girls take the stand in court and say how, because they were refugees, they had their heads dumped in the toilet by local kids [and] they had boys trying to sexually molest and assault them.”
“We’ve had other [adult] refugees giving evidence where they said the local guards were fingering them up their rectum,” she added. “… Some [refugees] have had permanent damage, brain damage, brought here in a coma and so many different scenarios like that.”
But there was nowhere to go get help, according to Jamal.
“When [we went] to the police and we were reporting those things… they [were] just telling us ‘go and fight with them or solve your own problem,’ so we didn’t have somewhere to go and get help,” he said.
“Even… the children, they were trying to kill themselves,” said Jamal, “… [they were] fed-up of… the situation.”
Things got worse for Jamal when many of his friends were granted asylum by third countries or evacuated to Australia for medical reasons, leaving him behind, he said.
“I was… seeking mental health doctors and nurses every day, and I was taking medicine, but it couldn’t help me.”
The problem was not chemical, he said, he needed freedom.
It was a “hopeless situation,” he said, with massive “stress and anxiety”, and it seemed like death was the only option.
Jamal sustained life-threatening third-degree burns after he set himself alight. And more than two years after the incident, he is still receiving treatment for his burns.
“Some parts of my body… it’s stopping me from moving so… they’re going to do… plastic surgery,” he said. “It’s taking long [because] when they do the… plastic surgery they’re going to see [if] it’s worked… [and] if not they will continue just to do something else.”
Added to this, Jamal said he is “still suffering” in detention.
There are 73 refugees, including Jamal, who were detained in the Pacific and still being held onshore in Australia. At least 178 have been freed from immigration detention since December 2020, on visas of varying lengths. Some are allowed to work while they wait for resettlement in a third country.
Graham Thom, refugee co-ordinator at Amnesty International Australia, called the continued detention of the 73 refugees “a clear breach of Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention”, since under this convention “refugees have a fundamental right to freedom of movement”.
“It is clearly damaging these people, damaging them physically, damaging them psychologically,” he added. “… We saw nearly 50 percent of the people held in the Park Hotel contract COVID-19. I don’t think there’s been anywhere else in Australia, where half the population has contracted COVID 19.”
Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, agreed, arguing that this damage is impossible to overstate.
“They’ve already lost so many years of their lives, many of them will never recover from the damage that’s been done,” he said.
Jamal said he would be better able to care for his mental health if he were released from detention and given a visa that grants him the right to work. He said he wanted to work and support his family, who are struggling in his home country.
Alison Battisson, director principal of Human Rights for All, who represents Jamal, said the refugee must be released.
There is “no question [that refugees] whatever their health issues are, do better and have better health outcomes if they are in the community”, she said, as they are able to have “some sort of autonomy over their own treatment.”
Battisson argued that his continued detention makes no sense, comparing it to a case she was involved in earlier in the year, when more than a hundred Afghan athletes were evacuated to Australia after the fall of Kabul.
“Within a two to three-week period, we were able to get 110 people in the process and they’re all in Australia now,” she says, “as compared to somebody who worked for the American forces in Afghanistan for over two years… and he remains in detention in Australia eight years later.”
In a statement, the Australian government told Al Jazeera it does not comment on individual cases, but said: “Persons who travel to Australia by boat illegally will not permanently settle here.”
The 173 refugees who were released from immigration detention and granted bridging visas must also “make arrangements to depart Australia,” the statement said. “The bridging visa does not provide a pathway to resettlement in Australia.”
Jamal’s lawyer, however, says she will continue to fight.
Battison is seeking his release in a new case that will be lodged in the new year. The ultimate aim is his freedom, she said, and the legal strategy is still evolving.
For now, all Jamal can do is wait in limbo, unsure of his future, comforting his family from behind bars.
“[I] just keep consoling [them] that one day we’re going to see each other. One day, because I don’t have any other words to tell them,” he said, “… that’s the hope we have — to say okay, I’m going to see you one day.”