Dark matters

On Monday, a Somali woman named Hodan set herself alight on Nauru. It was the second such self-immolation in a week. Three days earlier, Omid Masoumali died after setting fire to himself in front of his wife and an inspector for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 

As he stood doused in accelerant, Masoumali yelled, “This is how tired we are. This action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it anymore.” His claim for refugee status had been accepted but he had not been resettled. He was 23.

The day after Hodan’s immolation, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was photographed in partial shadow. The falling light gave Dutton the aspect of a Death Eater. His office contacted Fairfax and asked that the image be removed from social media.

This is the reality of Dutton’s office, more worried about perception than about the deaths of refugees they imprison. The irony is that no photograph could be as unflattering as the moral catastrophe over which Dutton presides. No ghost-story lighting could be as horrifying as the truth of his portfolio.

On Tuesday, Dutton confirmed Hodan was in a critical condition. In the same press conference he blamed refugee advocates for her suicide attempt. He said advocates were “encouraging some of these people to behave in a certain way, believing that that pressure exerted on the Australian government will see a change in our policy in relation to our border protection measures”.

A similar, and similarly unfounded, claim was made when the former minister blamed Save the Children staff for encouraging self-harm on Nauru. Two independent reviews dismissed this as nonsense, and the staff members were awarded compensation.

On Thursday, Dutton blamed the media for the suicide attempts on Nauru. “There are some media outlets in this country who need to reassess their approach to these matters,” he said. “Because again, like advocates, holding false hope out to people that somehow, through different resistance methods, that they’re going to come to Australia – they are wrong and they are frankly, I think, prolonging the difficulty of these people. They may think that they’re smart and well intentioned, but they’re not.”

Reporting on suicide is serious. There is an established link between coverage and contagion. But to not report suicides has its own risks. In the general population, it chases mental illness into shadows; among refugees, it hides the true brutality of offshore detention.

There is a reason these camps are far away. The government does not want the public to know what happens in them. Every possible restriction has been placed on reporting. Access has been elaborately inhibited. The federal police has been used to intimidate journalists and their sources. 

Dutton’s suggestion that the media stop reporting the howling trauma of refugees abused by his government’s policies is an outrage. He is a man without morals or shame.

It is left to the media to bring compassion to this issue. The government has no desire to solve the problems it has created on Manus and Nauru. It ignores humanitarian reports and international condemnation. Labor is as bad.

While it is terrible to report suicides, and it is not without risk, it is also necessary. To write that sentence is a measure of how desperate this situation has become.

Only a shift in public opinion will see these awful camps closed. The government’s concern over media is a concern that such a shift should one day come. When it does, decency might finally force itself on this issue. Until then, we are trapped by a decadent vanity more concerned with the afterimage of ghoulish lighting than the daily human rights abuses that light illuminates.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2016 as "Dark matters".

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