The prospect of the refugee detention camps on Nauru being reopened has become very real, with the issue of asylum seekers in boats apparently being of such magnitude to Tony Abbott that he would make it virtually his first priority for action above almost everything else, should he end up being elected on the weekend.
Apart from a visit by Philip Ruddock and the then shadow Minister for Labor, Julia Gillard, who visited the camp site when refugees were first being sent there, I was the only federal politician who made the trip there. I made four visits from 2003 – 2006, when the last of the refugees subject to the so-called Pacific Solution were finally given visas to settle in Australia, after more than five years on the tiny island.
Tony Abbott’s disgraceful comment that “the worst you could say” about the detention camps on Nauru is “that it’s a bit like boarding school” shows he not only has no idea of what the conditions would be like for refugees kept in these camps, he also had no idea how the vast majority of the refugees who were kept there were treated. About the only other thing you could say about such a stupid comment is that, subconsciously at least, he knows there will children amongst those who are kept there.
Contrary to impressions given the Liberal-National Party politicians when they talk of reopening a camp there, the refugees there were not allowed to move freely around the island during day time until years down the track. Additionally, the Nauruan government – almost certainly with the tacit support of the Australian government – prevented virtually anybody else from visiting the island to meet the refugees or see the conditions they were in.
It took a number of years for the conditions there to be brought up to scratch. In the final period, the conditions in the detention camp were satisfactory, but the big issue by that stage was the continuing uncertainty and drawn out stay for the refugees, rather than their living conditions.
One thing that is immediately obvious on visiting Nauru is how quickly things deteriorate, whether through vandalism or through the corrosive salt from the encircling ocean. I am told one of the former camp sites is now being used as a school. It is no surprise that the other main camp sites has reportedly fallen into serious disrepair, with “about 20 broken-down portable buildings being all that remains.” The camps will clearly have to completely rebuilt from scratch – again at huge cost to the taxpayer, which raises the question of just what standards any Australian government would insist on before sending refugees there (or whether Abbott will be demanding the Nauruans kick some of their kids out of school buildings.
On my first two visits, in 2003 and 2004, when the camps were still very full, I was struck by the large number of children being locked up in the camp, and how difficult it must have been for them and their parents. There is no doubt at all that a Liberal-National government would include children in those who would be sent to detention camps on Nauru. The same seems likely to apply for any Labor government centre built in East Timor.
I recently was shown some video footage taken of inside the main detention camp around the time of my 2004 visit. I gained permission to use a small part of that in a video to help remind people that the debate about this issue involves real people, not abstract labels. And it is the children who are often harmed the most by prolonged detention and uncertainty.