Change on Nauru – for better or worse?

I saw last week that Green Party Senator Kerry Nettle was endeavouring to visit the detention camp on Nauru, but had been denied a visa. As regular readers of this blog – or visitors to my main website – would know, I’ve visited the refugees and asylum seekers there three times and it is good that another Australian MP is now seeking to do the same. Given that it has cost millions of dollars of Australian taxpayers’ money, it is particularly poor that no Government Minister has gone there since the earliest days of the camps’ establishment.

I have to say it rings alarm bells that a federal MP is being denied entry to another country – particularly one which is currently so dependant on assistance from our government. However, in the strange alternative reality that our Immigration Department inhabits, one is always looking for signals of hidden truths and subtexts – a bit like trying to interpret happenings in the Kremlin in the communist era.

With just 32 asylum seekers left on Nauru and no real viable alternative for most of them other than coming to Australia, it is hard to know how much longer the farce of the detention camps can go on. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Australian & Nauruan governments allowing the camps to operate is currently being renegotiated, and the letter from Nauruan Consulate General to Senator Nettle said “the Government is currently in the process of revising its position on a number of issues pertaining to the Overseas Processing Centre on Nauru.” Just maybe this is a good signal that something significant is about to change and the asylum seekers will finally be allowed into Australia?! Of course, it may also be a very bad signal that some of the people are about to be forcibly returned, which in the case of at least some of them would mean returning to highly dangerous situations. Either way, though I am reluctant to be too critical of the Nauruan government – who are really not in a postion to be too choosy – refusing someone entry to the country for that reason is unacceptable.

Australia has a long history of involvement with Nauru. Our permanent diplomatic presence on the island ceased due to Budget cuts in around 1997, but was re-established in 2001 (on a continuing ‘temporary’ basis) when Australia persuaded Nauru to host a detention centre for asylum seekers who had been intercepted by the Australian Navy trying to enter the country.

Australian currency is used there, and it may be the only nation outside of Australia where Australian football is the most popular football code. Australia was integral in the running of the island’s phosphate mining prior to it being taken over by the Nauruans, and was also heavily involved in the island’s transition to independence. Many of Nauru’s leaders were educated in Australian schools.

For anyone wanting more details on Nauru beyond the detention camps, I recommend reading a paper just released by the Jesuit’s UNIYA Social Justice Centre called “Between a mined-out rock and a hard place”. This gives a good rundown of Nauru’s history and it’s current economic and social situation and the history of Australia’s involvement. I do think some of Nauru’s past leaders should be held a bit more accountable than the paper suggests for the mess their country is in now, but it is still a good summary.

I have previously met some of the senior figures in the current Nauru government and whilst I obviously disagree with their willingness to maintain the detention camp, I found them impressive people who recognised the serious situation their country was in and seemed willing to make some of the hard decisions and sacrifices that are needed.

When I visited Nauru for the third time last May, it unexpectedly coincided with some minor diplomatic turmoil. The Nauruan Government had announced the (re)establishment of diplomatic ties with Taiwan, much to the chagrin of the Chinese government, who provided the only diplomatic presence on the island other than Australia.

My visit was also coincidentally at the time of their annual Constitution Day public holiday, which marks the country’s independence. Normally, Australian Consulate officials and visitors like me would have attended Constitution Day festivities on Nauru out of respect to the country. Unfortunately, the major celebration in the evening was also a celebration to mark the establishment of diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which put the Australian Consulate and other officials in rather a bind, as our Government is always very keen to avoid offending the Chinese Government. This was made all the more awkward, as the celebration was held at the Hotel Menen, which is where all the Australian officials live and the Consular Offices are (along with the offices of DIMIA and the Australian Protective Services), which made non-attendance that bit more obvious.

As I didn’t really want to get caught up in any inadvertent offence to anyone, I went to my room. The electricity on Nauru is subject to regular load shedding, and the power at the Hotel in Menen is rationed from 5 o’clock to 11 o’clock in the morning and the night time. I was fortunate to have access to a television, although I didn’t feel so fortunate when the ABC’s Asia-Pacific news broadcast an item about Nauru’s recognition of Taiwan, complete with some patronising hypocrisy from Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. Of course, there’s nothing unusual in hearing Minister Downer being hypocritical or offensive, as this seems to permeate most of his utterances. However, it did have extra poignancy watching it in a foreign country at the very time he is patronising them.

The Foreign Minister was expressing concern at Nauru’s decision to recognise Taiwan, in exchange for some immediate financial assistance. There was a lot of truth in the concerns he expressed about the need for Nauru to move away from economic quick fixes and cash cows and towards a more stable economic footing than can be relied on in the longer-term. However, it is a bit rich lecturing Nauru about this, when his Government provides the ultimate cargo-cult cash cow with the totally unsustainable detention centre being funded at great cost. It is especially ridiculous when everyone knows the detention camps on Nauru were established as the Australian government’s own quick fix –getting them out of a political and legal quandary rather than an economic one.

It was Australia’s choice in 2001 to make Nauru a pivotal part of our country’s strategy for repelling asylum seekers. That choice has added a new and very different component to the relationship and history between Australia and Nauru. There have now been three Memoranda of Understanding (MoU’s) agreed to between Australian and Nauru regarding the detention centre and development and other assistance. The third MoU expired at the end of June and the fourth is being negotiated now. If Australia was genuinely concerned about the long-term well being of Nauru it would ensure that the new MoU included a time line to remove all the people from the detention centre and the resources instead put into providing the long-term health, education and economic infrastructure that Nauru desperately needs.

When the asylum seekers finally leave, as they inevitably will one way or another, probably within the year, most of the infrastructure ‘supporting’ them will go too, along with the capacity to maintain it. Australia should guarantee a long-term diplomatic and economic presence in Nauru. There is no doubt that Nauru will need comprehensive assistance over a long period of time to ensure that the country can have a solid and secure economic and social future. Programs and funding that last one or two years at a time will continue to mean a piecemeal approach and a continual cycle of three steps forward two steps back. On this visit, I met Australians who are providing management and planning expertise at the hospital and with the education curriculum. They seem to be providing great value, but their positions (and the resources dedicated to them) are not permanent or long-term.

For example, the food for the patients at the hospital is being provided by the caterers who cook for the detention centre, as the island’s own ability and facilities fail to meet this task. It is good that this service can be provided, but it creates a significant dependence on detainees staying on the island.

The conditions of most of the classrooms are sub-standard and in some cases simply dangerous. The hospital has serious shortcomings. The island has a major problem with diabetes and primary or community health care falls well short of what is needed. I was told the life expectancy of Nauruans is around 55.

While I was being shown around the hospital, I saw a newly refurbished ward of 10 beds. Unfortunately, it is kept locked and is only for use if it is needed by the asylum seekers. Meanwhile, in other parts of the hospital I saw adults and babies sleeping on the floor. No one can tell me that scarce foreign aid funds are being properly spent with maximum value for Nauruans when a situation like this is happening.

With such clear cut and immediate needs for the Nauruan people and their government, it is a travesty that millions of dollars continue to be spent solely on denying freedom to 32 asylum seekers, allegedly so a ‘message can be sent’ to people smugglers.

Australia does owe a debt to Nauru and an obligation to continue assisting that country as it attempts to rebuild a sustainable future for its people. The biggest favour we could do for them is to close down the detention camp straight away and ensure that the money instead goes directly into proper assistance.

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2 Comments

  1. I find it amusing that a Greens Senator has been denied entry to another country. Weren’t they saying we should be respecting Iraqi sovereignty by not invading? I guess she’s learning a lesson about Nauru’s sovereignty.

  2. Mildly droll point Mike, but I think a Parliamentary visit is a bit different to a military invasion.
    Any country has the right to refuse entry to someone (unless they are seeking protection from genuine persecution), but I don’t think it’s a good thing for a democratic country to engage in unless there are strong security or health grounds.
    Nauru is not North Korea and I think it unnecessarily damages their reputation to no good end to do things like that. However, it is obviously their right to do so and no doubt they believe they have good and valid reasons.

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