Lonely and innocent

Omid Masoumali was 22 when he arrived on Christmas Island. Days later he was taken to Nauru. Along with his partner, he was considered an “unlawful non-citizen”. He had been a swimming instructor in Iran. When interviewed, he said he had no existing mental health issues. He was found to be a refugee but was not offered settlement in Australia.

The Queensland coroner heard that he was warm and funny. His partner described him as optimistic, confident and cheeky. His mother described the death of her only son as an “eternal, unbearable grief”. The coroner said: “Her son had died in a foreign country, lonely and innocent.”

In a report handed down this week, the coroner included a transcript of Masoumali’s final words, before he set himself alight in protest at his treatment. “You have made our lives miserable and hopeless,” he said. “I am very tired and exhausted. You have peeled off our skin. You want to see how miserable we are? This is how miserable we are; you have watched us enough. It’s three years, you have made us feel quite miserable. This is our situation.”

The inquest heard that Masoumali’s partner had intended to immolate herself, but he took the petrol from her and carried out the protest. It heard that he had sought mental health support on Nauru and had asked to see a psychologist the day before he died. It heard that his suicide followed a similar attempt by another asylum seeker several weeks earlier.

For 959 days, until his death, Australia had kept Masoumali and his partner in a state of perpetual unknowing about their future – “apart,” the coroner noted, “from not being able to settle in Australia”.

The coroner said: “the Department had knowledge that refugees were expressing the same feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and uncertainty about progress that Omid expressed immediately before setting himself alight”. He said: “The risk level was not low.”

He found that the mental health care offered to Masoumali was inadequate. After sustaining his burns, the care available to him was well below what could be expected in Australia. He was flown to Brisbane, but it was too late. His death was preventable.

Among other measures, the coroner recommended that Australia “provide more certainty to refugees to ensure those who are successful in their asylum applications are resettled in third countries expeditiously, and that refugees are given some assurance that will be achieved”.

The absence of certainty is the purpose of the system, however. It is what the government grimly calls deterrence. In terrible detail, the coroner’s report describes what deterrence actually means. It is brutal and it is cruel.

“Sadly,” he writes in his conclusion, “Omid’s hopes for a better life with his partner were never realised … The evidence indicates that Omid started his journey in 2013 as an optimistic and perhaps naïve 22-year-old. Within three years he had died a painful death in a Brisbane hospital after struggling to come to terms with the reality of an indefinite period on Nauru.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 6, 2021 as "Lonely and innocent".

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