Nauru is a tiny island nation in the eastern Pacific region of Micronesia, approximately 2000 miles to the northeast of Australia.
The geography of the island features a coral reef and white-sand beaches fringed with palms. Inland, tropical vegetation surrounds the picturesque Buada Lagoon. The underground lake of Moqua Well supplies the island with its major source of freshwater. The rocky outcrop of Command Ridge, the island’s highest point, has a rusty Japanese outpost from WWII. To many, at first glance, Nauru might seem a tropical paradise.
The country of Nauru, the smallest island nation in the world, has an area of 21 square km. and a population of just over 10k persons. The nation’s official languages are English and Nauruan, with the Australian dollar as the local currency. Nauru has been inhabited for at least 3,000 years, originally by Polynesian and Micronesian tribes.
A German colony in the 19th century and an Australian protectorate until the middle of the 20th, Nauru was once one of the richest places on Earth – thanks to extensive deposits of phosphate-rich guano. Present-day, Nauru has been described by one writer, Ben Doherty (to whom I direct credit for some of the finer details in this article), as “a barren moonscape of jagged rock, entirely unsuitable for agriculture, industry or forestry – the consequence of strip-mining of the island for fertilizer during the middle part of the 20th century.”
Nauru gained its independence in 1968 and, for a while, was a wealthy country, second only to Saudi Arabia in per-capita GDP. However, the nation’s wealth was squandered by a succession of incompetent governments which engaged in disastrous projects. Money laundering, particularly involving the Russian mafia, was rampant; the country’s officials engaged in corrupt practices; membership of the UN General Assembly was used for financial gain.
Ben Doherty is again informative when he points out that when, inevitably, the phosphate ran out, unemployment hit 90% and the school system collapsed. The population now suffers from high levels of diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
This is the country to which, since 2001, Australia has sent the major proportion of its “boat people”.
A broken and dependent country is used by Australia as a remote site for the “offshore processing of people who seek asylum and protection. What began as a hurried political response to the arrival on Australia’s northern horizon in 2001 of one boat, the MV Tampa – a Norwegian freighter carrying 400 mainly Afghan Hazara refugees rescued in international waters – has metamorphosed into a standing permanent policy, the so-called “Pacific Solution”, with the support of both Australia’s major political parties.”
The story of the events surrounding the foregoing is a drama in itself
The narrative involves defiance of international law by the Australian authorities, political intrigue by the Conservative-National coalition government of John Howard, and the focusing of immigration as an ongoing election issue in Australia federal politics. Notwithstanding, the camps in Nauru were considered to be a solution to the problem, existing since the mid-1970’s, of the unwanted arrival of boat-carrying asylum seekers in Australia. The camps were designed to be punitive and were widely promoted as a deterrent, to discourage anybody from seeking sanctuary in Australia by boat.
It is the current policy of the Australian government that no persons who arrive in Australia by boat and seeking asylum are ever settled in Australia. Instead, they are sent to Nauru, or to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Furthermore, it would seem that no genuine process of resettlement ever takes place. Nauru and Manus Island simply engage in a prolonged period of “offshore processing”. Interestingly, no arrivee in Australia by plane and seeking asylum is ever subject to “mandatory detention”!
It would seem that, of the 442 (as of June, 2016, and including 49 children) asylum seekers and refugees in Nauru’s “regional processing centre” – not to mention those now living in the community of Nauru, no distinction is made between asylum seekers and refugees. Possibly 75% of the latter can be regarded as persons with a well-founded claim to be refugees and in fear of persecution and, therefore, in line with UN directives, are legally owed protection.
The “Nauru Files” of the Australian government’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection is a cache of over 2000 leaked documents covering incidents of self-harm, assault and sexual assaults in the Nauru detention camps during the period 2013-2015. The files further show that there has been an average of 782 adults in detention in Nauru over that time period. It has been reliably estimated (based on the latest figures for 2014-15) that the annual cost of Australia’s offshore detention programme has risen to $A1.2 billion.
The experiment that has been Nauru seems to have had two stages.
The first began in 2001, after the MV Tampa crisis (see above). By 2007, largely as a consequence of the problems bedevilling the Nauruan camps – for example, overcrowded tents, unsanitary conditions, lack of medical facilities and a shortage of water – as well as the growing realization that those who had arrived on Australia’s shores, the “boat people”, were not “queue jumpers” or criminals, or terrorists, but rather people fleeing genuine persecution, the “Pacific Solution” was seen to be quite unsatisfactory. Most “boat people” were, in consequence, resettled – mostly in Australia.
A repeat of the policy of Nauru being an isle of detention began in 2012. This was instituted by a Labour government and has been carried on by Liberal-National coalition governments. This iteration was seemingly brought about by the increase in the number of boats arriving in Australian waters, with a concomitant rise in the number of deaths at sea amongst the “boat people”.
The “second Nauru detention regime” has been carefully and deliberately kept hidden. Despite this, however, some information, in addition to the “Nauru Files”, has leaked into the public domain.
It seems that conditions in the refugee camps are no better than they were in their previous incarnation, including: self-harm, sexual assaults (particularly on women), the effects of detention on mental health (not only but especially with children), squalid living conditions, lack of medical treatment, and reports of suicide (threatened or actual) by the inmates. A former chief psychiatrist responsible for the care of asylum seekers in detention on Nauru and Manus Island, Dr Peter Young, described the camps as “inherently toxic” and said “the immigration department deliberately harmed vulnerable detainees in a process akin to torture”.
The government of Nauru has seemingly made it clear that there will be no permanent settlement of refugees on Nauru. There is a five year limit on “boat people” staying on the island. Australia will need to find other places to help solve its self-induced dilemma.
In an article entitled “This does not deter – it causes damaged souls”, David Marr, a Guardian Australia journalist, author and commentator, has said that “Nauru is Australia’s work. We Australians own this despair. Nauru is on perpetual death watch”. Day after day there are records of the “cries of people that Australia has deliberately brought to the brink”.
Again, Dr Peter Young, in stating his professional view that the Australian department of immigration was deliberately inflicting suffering on camp inmates (whom he considered to be “prisoners”) in order to force them to return home, said: “If we take the definition of torture to be the deliberate harming of people in order to coerce them into a desired outcome, I think it does fulfil that definition”.
The politics have not shifted, nor its consequences: camp inmates continue to be degraded; despair deepens; families are split apart; lives are broken; human suffering and sorrow intensifies, all trapped “in a makeshift prison on a sweltering island”.
This is not the Australia in which I grew up. Aussies that I know or know about are not brutal people intent on brutalizing others. What brought about the so-called “Pacific Solution”?
David Marr considers that this situation is the result of two lies: “(1) because both sides of politics tell us that only by detaining refugees out there will the boats stop coming, and (2) we are assured that there is somewhere in the world ready to take them off our hands”. Thoughts of a similar lying nature were evident in the arguments of those in favour of the UK leaving the EU during the recent UK referendum on membership of the EU.
Australian governments are trying to break the “boat people”. They will not succeed. The inevitable will happen. The asylum seekers will land and enjoy asylum. The refugees will stand on Australian soil and savour the refuge they desperately seek. For David Marr, “Despite all that has been done to them and all that their treatment tells us about Australia, they still want to live there. It’s a humbling verdict.”
We might say that, eventually, they want to call Australia home!