More than 170 children have been born in the last seven years to refugees or asylum seekers sent to Nauru, adding a new generation to those the Australian government has vowed will never be able to stay in this country.
By February 2019, 175 babies had been born to asylum seekers who were not entitled to stay in Australia because they had been sent to the tiny island nation. Some 125 were born in Australia and the others offshore.
The Department of Home Affairs declined to provide more recent figures or reveal how many of this next generation had been resettled in the US.
These young children face an uncertain future under the government’s strict offshore processing policy. Some may face permanent separation from their parents or even statelessness. Like the children in the Tamil family from Biloela, many inherited their parents’ vulnerable status because of events that predated their births.
Two-year-old Eshal Haider was born in Australia and has never left the country.
Her parents, Pakistani refugees Zijah Haider and Mehreen Ibrahim, met and married on Nauru. In 2017, Ibrahim was sent to Australia when she was pregnant. Haider was transferred in 2019, when Eshal was a year old. Since then, although he does not understand why, he has been held in an Adelaide detention centre. Visits were banned in March because of Covid-19, so his only interaction with his toddler has been through video calls.
“OK, this is the punishment for me that I came by boat, though I did not kill anybody and I did not harm anybody,” Ibrahim said. “But what about my child?”
Eshal refuses to eat at mealtimes until she video calls her father. She has been slow to learn to talk, which Ibrahim blames on stress. When they see other families playing at the park, Eshal asks where her daddy is.
Even if Haider were released, Eshal would not be like other kids at the playground.
Her immigration status piggybacks on her parents’. She and her parents are what the government calls “transitory persons” – people who are in Australia temporarily from an offshore processing country and cannot stay.
It is not clear where they should go. The government has not returned anyone to Nauru or Papua New Guinea since 2018. As refugees, they cannot go back to Pakistan. And while Ibrahim was accepted to resettle in the US, Haider was rejected.
“It’s eight years now since we left our home country and we are still in between [things],” Ibrahim said. “What will happen with us?”
A home affairs spokesperson said “transitory persons are encouraged to engage in third country resettlement options and take steps to start the next phase of their lives. They will not remain in Australia”.
“A child born to a transitory person is a transitory person regardless of location of birth and remains subject to regional processing and third country migration outcomes.”
Amnesty International’s Graham Thom said that when the Australian government decided to move asylum seekers offshore, it failed to consider that people would continue having children.
“You have children who are born here and who have now spent a number of years growing up here, who are considered to be boat arrivals and transitory persons even though they’ve never been on a boat and never transited from anywhere,” he said.
As a result, the number of people in limbo in Australia is growing, Thom said. “If they don’t have a solution we’re not going to have 1,000 here, we’ll have 2,000.”
Some of these children may be stateless, according to Melbourne University professor Michelle Foster. While children born in Australia without another nationality can get Australian citizenship, Nauru does not have the same arrangement. More than 200 of those sent to Nauru, like the Rohingya, were stateless. If any babies were born on Nauru to stateless parents, they would probably be stateless too.
This scenario “just highlights another way in which we’ve disadvantaged people” by sending them offshore, Foster said.
Either way, children born to these refugees face the challenge of growing up in limbo.
Frances Rush is the CEO of the Asylum Seekers Centre and said her organisation has seen young children who were born on Nauru who are disruptive, playing up and throwing tantrums. They absorb their parents’ stress, which is high after years of uncertainty, she said.
“Sometimes people want to diagnose these children as having ADHD but … what we see quite early is once they get into school, they get into a routine, and the levels of the parents’ stress drop, you see that a lot of those behaviours fall away.”
How that distress will manifest later “should be of concern to all Australians,” she said. “This has happened on our watch.”
Then there are practical problems. Children in community detention need government sign-offs to go to friends’ sleepovers. Those on bridging visas must renew them every few months. In the last few months, hundreds of refugees have been pushed out of government-provided accommodation and cut off from financial support, causing advocates to warn of a looming poverty crisis.
Some children also face the possibility of permanent separation from a parent.
Maria Kahie, a 24-year-old Somali refugee, has been in Australia since 2015 after spending 14 months on Nauru.
When she was released after a year in detention, she met up with a security guard she’d known on the island.
“I really hated him when I was on Nauru. It wasn’t love at first sight, I can tell you that much,” she said. But when they met again through mutual friends in Brisbane, “that was that”.
In 2017 they married. They had their first baby 17 months ago and their second is due in May.
Kahie’s children will inherit her husband’s Australian citizenship. “I think they will be normal like every other Aussie kid,” she said. “They were born here and they’re Australians, that’s how I look at them.”
But Kahie’s “transitory person” status prevents her from applying for a partner visa. She could be detained, deported or sent back to Nauru with little notice.
That has not stopped Kahie from building a life in Australia. Initially unable to find a job, she started a cleaning business with her husband. They work nights cleaning office buildings and are now financially comfortable.
Kahie is reminded of her precarious position when she goes to renew her bridging visa every three months.
“Every time my husband drops me off, he’s like ‘what if they take you from the back door and put you in a van and take you away?’ It’s always a worry, because honestly, who could stop them if they wanted to?”
A number of children born to refugee men and local women in PNG face a similar dilemma.
Ibrahim would like a second child, especially for Eshal’s sake. “But I have to think about our future, where we are going and where they are taking us,” she said.
Kahie is less bothered by the uncertainty. She decided to have children when she realised she would have to put dreams of studying on hold because of her bridging visa conditions. If she gets a chance to study later her children will be old enough to allow her to do so. She feels she can’t stop living her life just because the government has not resolved what to do with her.
“Can you imagine waiting another seven years to live your life? So I’m not waiting for them to decide,” she said. “I’m going to live my life to the fullest until I can’t.”