I’m not a crier. I’m not easily moved to actual, physical tears – I rarely cry in movies, or for strangers, no matter how genuinely saddened I may feel. Yet this week, I shed tears for a 23 year old Iranian man I’ve never met.
The tragic last few days of Omid’s life have by now been well documented. He set fire to himself on Wednesday in front of UNHCR representatives on Nauru, and it took nearly 24 hours for him to be transported to Australia. While on Nauru, despite suffering severe burns to significant portions of his body, he was given no intravenous pain relief and medical care was inadequate due to lack of facilities on the poor pacific island. It is reported that he was braindead by the time he arrived in Brisbane.
When I heard on Friday that he had died, I cried for Omid for so many reasons.
I cried because Omid leaves behind a young wife, who had been living with him on Nauru.
I cried because Omid’s claim for asylum had been assessed. He had been found to be a genuine refugee – someone whose experience in their home country invokes our protection obligations – and as a country, we failed him.
I cried because Omid should have been brought to Australia immediately for treatment. It is incomprehensible that it took that long to organise a plane to make the 4.5 hour flight to Nauru, when it was immediately clear that his condition was critical. Reports even suggest a plane was already in Nauru, having transferred asylum seekers to the island that day. The calculated lack of concern from our Government terrifies me.
I cried because Omid should not have been relegated to a life in limbo on Nauru. He should have been able to start a fresh life, away from fear of persecution, but instead he found absolute hopelessness.
I cried because Omid was not crazy. He had succumbed to the physical and emotional trauma he had been subjected to for most of his adult life. Trauma inflicted not by some totalitarian regime, militant dictatorship or failed state – but by a so-called civilised, democratic country. My country.
I cried because Omid was not alone. The previous evening, four people had been taken to the medical unit on Nauru for swallowing washing powder. Others have swallowed razor blades, sewn their lips together, or refused to take food or drink for weeks. People may argue these are just “tactics” to get to Australia, but I cannot think of anything I have ever wanted that badly in my life that I would go to such horrific extents to obtain it. These are not the actions of people trying to blackmail us – these are horribly broken people.
Malcolm Turnbull may not want us getting “misty eyed” about asylum seeker policy, but how can we react in any other way to the tragedies unfolding on Nauru and Manus Island? No amount of semantics or “bureaucratic sleight of hand” can change the fact that we are essentially torturing people who have sought our help. There is no greater good that could possibly justify how we are treating innocent people like Omid (who had committed no crime by seeking asylum in Australia, regardless of his mode of entry, and whose claim for asylum had been found to be valid).
According to witnesses, just before setting himself alight, Omid yelled “This is how tired we are, this action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it anymore.”
Today I learned that omīd is the Persian word for “hope”. My hope and prayer is that Omid’s death was not in vain and that this horrific incident – preventable in so many ways – is a wakeup call to Australia. We cannot continue to implicitly condone a policy that is cruelty and selfishness masquerading as a moral imperative. The hundreds of people just like Omid, trapped on Nauru and Manus Island, cannot take it anymore.
Australia – may we never forget what we did to Omid.