Refugees and asylum seekers held by Australia on the tiny island nation of Nauru are going without fruit, vegetables and other essentials because they cannot afford them.
Since the Australian-run processing centre on Nauru closed down in March 2019, refugees and asylum seekers have received a small government pension to allow them to purchase food and other basic necessities.
Single adults receive $200 in their bank accounts every two weeks. Couples receive $370. That payment is reduced or stopped entirely if the person is employed.
Much of Nauru has been ravaged by phosphate mining, and its soil is largely unfit for growing fruit and vegetables. This means fresh food must be imported, arriving every two weeks, and fruit and vegetable prices are sky high.
Photos taken by refugees on Nauru and supplied to BuzzFeed News showed bananas on sale for $15.20 per kilo, avocado for $28 per kilo, and cucumber for $19.20 per kilo.
By comparison, Australian supermarket chain Woolworths is currently selling bananas for $2 per kilo, cucumbers for $4.90 per kilo, and (misshapen) avocados for $9.50 per kilo.
Abu Jamil, a Rohingya refugee in his late 30s, told BuzzFeed News he sometimes eats only one meal a day, and mainly eats only rice.
“It’s only electricity and water that we don’t have to buy. Coffee, milk, sugar, fish, meat everything we have to buy,” he said. “Fruit I cannot buy because I don’t have enough money. Vegetables are very expensive.”
Jamil had previously worked on the island as a construction worker and did not need the income supplement, but chronic pain in his lower back and a knee injury from playing soccer meant he had to stop about eighteen months ago.
He is also suffering a stomach problem which causes bloodied stools, but said he is more concerned about his other injuries because the stomach issue does not prevent him from working.
He has been offered medical treatment in Taiwan, but only for one health issue at a time, he said.
The last time he ate fruit was while he was in the detention camp, in November 2018. Detainees at the camp were provided with food, including fruit.
Jenny Leahy, who formerly worked as an education manager on Nauru, posted on Facebook last week a photo of a watermelon priced at $61 she took when on the island in 2016.
She said she made the case to Australian Border Force in 2016 that the allowance for refugees was inadequate, but never got a response.
“The $100 a week, not only is it supposed to cover food, but it’s supposed to cover clothing, toiletries, the Internet, everything,” she told BuzzFeed News. “It’s just not possible.”
She and her colleagues were able to buy fresh produce as they were earning good money. But even those refugees who are working are “probably not earning much more than the amount” of the allowance, she said.
With low wages, local Nauruans would also struggle to pay for fruit, Leahy said.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has identified a lack of access to nutritious food as a contributor to health problems on Nauru, where there are high rates of obesity and type two diabetes in the local population.
So-called “transitory persons” — the label the Australian government gives refugee and asylum seekers held in offshore detention — receive government-funded furnished accommodation.
“The government of Nauru is responsible for the management of processing arrangements in Nauru,” a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Home Affairs told BuzzFeed News in an emailed statement.
“Income support payment rates are determined by the Government of Nauru and are set at a point that is sufficient for the cost of living in Nauru. No change in the income support rate has been proposed by the Government of Nauru.”