On all my visits to Nauru, I have stayed at the Menem Hotel, one of only two hotels on the island. The last three times I’ve been in the same room, which is called the presidential suite. This is due to the fact that it seems to always be the only room that is free, not to any taste for luxury on my part – not that it is excessively luxurious in any case. However, it is clearly the showcase room, and it contains a guest book with the names of an eclectic array of visitors since its very first guest in August 1993 – the then Prime Minister of Australia, Paul Keating.
The guest book provides a marker, a list of occasional glimpses, as time has moved past, sitting separately alongside the slowly changing situation faced by so many of the ‘visitors’ who have gone through the refugee camps on Nauru over those years, not to mention the changes within Nauru itself, and some different points in my own life over that period.
I always feel a bit naff writing in a guest book, but I usually do it anyway. A guest book is just a snapshot, and an incomplete one at that. Who knows how many people didn’t write their names, or the full reasons behind the visits of those that did? But incomplete as it may be, it still provides an insight.
According to the book, the second guest was the Deputy PM and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Papua New Guinea, in March 1994. Since then, the mix of people passing through has included leaders of many Pacific Island nations such as Kiribati, Tuvalu and Micronesia. The Commonwealth Secretary General, officials from the International Weightlifting Federation, and the President of the IOC all visited in 1998.
It has also had overnighting air crews, honeymooners and local schoolchildren, most of whom note the panoramic ocean and coastal view, even though ocean views are not in short supply on the island of Nauru. The book records visiting ambassadors and high commissioners from a wide range of countries – places as far afield as Russia, Japan, France, USA, Taiwan, Israel, India, Taiwan plus Australia and New Zealand. One wonders what issues lay behind some of their visits.
Some visiting Australians left messages for guests to come. In the lead up to the meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum which was held on Nauru in August 2001, an animal care worker (who came to help with the wild dog population on the island) left a message “to the occupant of this room during the 31st forum” asking them to “make a difference – look at the conditions and see what we Australians can do to help. What we take away – we must repay.”
A worker from CSIRO visiting in 2001 noted the change in the Australian presence since their first visit in 1991, when “Australia was represented politically by an administrator and many Australians lived here, contributing to Nauru’s standing. As Nauru’s phosphate sustained and still sustains Australia’s agriculture, it disappoints me that we treat Nauru with so little recognition today” – he left a post-script that “the South Pacific Forum of Nations is about to be held and our Prime Minister has cancelled his attendance!”
A 2002 visitor was working on an AusAID funded South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring project. Click on this link to see some of the data from this project to date.
My previous entries sit there in amongst the rest: 19-22 Jan 2004 – “A fabulous view, friendly people. Hoping the asylum seekers will be free soon.” 18 May, 2005 – “Back again. People helpful and friendly. Still seeking freedom for the remaining asylum seekers – more are free, hoping for success for the rest and more prosperity for Nauru.” And now in 2007, another one, noting that all the refugees from the past were finally free … and now the cycle has started over again.
Since 2001, 1640 asylum seekers have been involuntary visitors on Nauru. This includes the 90 who are currently there, and also one child born there to a refugee family in 2002 (who I have been told was noted in one place on the relevant DIMIA file as ‘alleged to have been born in Nauru’, as though she might have been teleported in as a way to help manipulate sympathy for the family’s refugee claim.) None of them knew when they arrived where they might be going, or when. Some were cast all the way back to where they fled from, some to flee again. Many ended up in New Zealand, most in Australia, a few in North America or Europe.
BTW: if you’d like to see the Guest Book (and see and hear me telling you all of the above) follow this YouTube link.