Remembering Omid: Brisbane Court Set To Hand Down Inquest Findings Into ‘Survivable’ Self-Immolation

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The findings into the inquest of Iranian refugee Omid Masoumali, who died on Nauru in 2016, will be handed down in Brisbane tomorrow. Witnesses to the self-immolation of Omid included UNHCR staff, children, nurses and other detainees. Asylum seeker advocate Jane Salmon reflects on the journey that got us here, and diminished us all.

There are moments in the history of Australia’s processing of asylum seekers that you never forget.

Now-suppressed video of 23-year-old Omid Masoumali screaming and running around the grubby Nauruan hospital ward with untreated whole body burns is but one. Nurses without gowns stood back against the walls. Cats moved through the ward. That Omid was ambulatory, not treated, in pain and in these unsterile conditions demonstrated how low the standard of Australian government funded health care offshore was. No assurances of improvements will ever erase that picture in my head.

A group of advocates had seen images of Omid’s self-immolation, after being told that he had 10 more years on Nauru. We knew he had asked for mental health support. We saw photos of the motorcycle mechanic, the laughing husband and engineer’s son in more hopeful times. We sat up watching flight trackers on our phones for evidence of an evacuation plane.

It took more than 12 hours to leave Brisbane.

Hoffman knives – specially designed to cut people down when they’ve tried to hang themselves – were not the only way guards could control suicide. Such was the desperation on the island and the outbreak for self-harm that advocates even asked Nauruan police to guard aviation fuel dumps.

Ironically, it was detainees who got those $4 an hour security gigs.

Dutton’s defensive yet callous responses to the circumstances of Omid’s death and other offshore events in 2016 heightened the horror.

Omid’s wife was drugged, denied time with Omid’s body and held in isolation. She was dragged between Brisbane and Nauru. She was charged with hitting a computer. Immigration fully intended to dump her back on Nauru.

The Nauru Files listed the medical failings in greater detail. There was the treatment of S99 – an African refugee who became pregnant after being raped on Nauru- and others. 2013 to 2018 were appalling years. Refugees are real people. Those who got to know them in real life or online saw and felt too much. Vicarious trauma has a cost too.

The helpless vigils, the candles and t-shirts spelling Omid’s name did nothing to dispel the horror that Australians had voted for the architects of this cruelty and would soon do so again.

Coming as it did after so much political insensitivity to poverty and reflexive racist response to the plight of those escaping wars in which Australia has engaged, I found myself unable to sit in the same room as those who found the policies tolerable. Inundation by people from elsewhere was seen as worse than offering extra places.

There were medical protests, colourful chalk ups, grim articles. The death toll from boat turnbacks and offshore processing rose.

A commensurate slide in the wellbeing of those Australians who cared seemed to matter little. 

Knowing even some of the corrupt contracts, the brutality of guards on Manus and Nauru, the starvation in the streets of Indonesia, it is inconceivable to me that Morrison and Dutton still hold any kind of office.

The world is big enough to absorb 80 million displaced people, to house the homeless without all this unnecessary agony.

And yet, Omid’s contemporaries are still being abused in Park Hotel, which is rife with COVID. The lies about the standard of care in that unventilated incubator continue. They have endured nine years of shameful abuse. Billions have been wasted on dispensing random combinations of strong anti-malarials, anti-depressants, Panadol and tooth extractions.

Those of us who have shared concern over this, the traumatised refugees, the journalists, the organisations, the donor supporters, the activists, appalled healthcare workers, musicians and signwriters are bonded for life. No government bribes over franking credits or negative gearing will replace these years lost to despair, anger and protest.

We share our thoughts, priorities, homes and day-to-day lives with each other. 

Australia must never do this again. The policies of refoulement, deportation to third countries, the degrading institutions, the bureaucratic mishandling, punitive responses to inevitable mental health decline and indefinite detention are revolting.

Supporters daily defy our government by housing those released, by helping them find jobs. We have no truck with those who insist on fortress Australia in the name of any kind of scarcity.

When Omid Masoumali’s inquest findings are handed down almost six years after his needless death, may we listen and learn.

May we learn about the cost of over incarceration and detention. May we learn not to punish grieving widows. May we remember that refugees are people just like us.

The law is potentially a lever. It exists to advise governments so enmeshed in elaborate administrative processes that they cannot see human impacts and outcomes

May we agree that welcoming refugees will heal many wounds. Adaptation to change and a return to multicultural values will enrich us all.

*A vigil will be held from 9:30am at Brisbane Magistrate’s Court in George Street tomorrow. Lawyer for Omid’s family, George Newhouse of the National Justice Project, will speak about the Inquest Findings at 1pm in Sydney tomorrow.

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Jane Salmon

Jane Salmon has been a refugee advocate for eight years, volunteering with the National Justice Project for six.

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