I’m posting this on Thursday night from my hotel room in Fiji, having just arrived here from Nauru. This post is just an initial outline – I will provide more in-depth reflections about the situation of the asylum seekers and other aspects of the situation in Nauru and my visit there in later posts, and also in the refugees section of my main website.
After arriving back from Canberra last Sunday night and spending about 4 hours at home, I went back to the airport to catch a 2am flight out of Brisbane, which landed in Nauru around 9.30 am after a brief stopover at Honiara in the Solomon Islands. Nauru is just 40 kilometres south of the Equator and it is hot and humid all year round. I’m not a big fan of heat or humidity, even though I’ve lived all my life in Brisbane, and it’s even less enjoyable after an overnight flight.
The flight also had onboard the Australian Consul General, a senior DIMIA official and the regional head of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) who run the detention camps in Nauru.* There were also two people on my flight who both have a long involvement communicating with detainees on Nauru and were going to meet with them in person for the first time, which was an added bonus.
One of the huge benefits of travelling as a politician on parliamentary business is that you often get met at the airport by Government officials who help sort out all the fiddly bits that go with arriving at airports in foreign countries. A helpful Australian official sorted out all the baggage and customs and the like when we landed while we sat in a cool room and then got driven straight to the hotel by Australian Protective Services officers so we could freshen up before getting into meetings.
I spend the Monday getting briefings from the Consulate, DIMIA and IOM, as well as having a look around the island and inspecting a couple of schools along with the Principals and a senior Education official, who was an Australian funded through AusAID. I am loathe to reflect badly on Nauru, but the condition of the schools cannot be described as anything other then shocking.
I waited until Tuesday to visit the asylum seekers, as I wanted to be rested and refreshed when I met them. I spent all day at their camp from 9am until 9pm, meeting with them first as a group, then the two families with children, followed by the other couple in the camp and then various individuals who wanted to talk with me.
On Wednesday I visited the local hospital and talked with health workers there (more on that later), followed by more time with the asylum seekers at the camp. The atmosphere at the camp and the mental state of the detainees was very different from the day before, as news had come through in the morning that Minister Vanstone had announced a Memorandum of Understanding with the Afghan government allowing involuntary deportation of people back to that country. These announcements are designed to add pressure on them to ‘give up’ and go back. There is no doubt it added pressure, although given that packages encouraging return have been offered to these people before, I’d be very surprised if anyone would now go back to somewhere they felt was not safe, given how long they have already refused and resisted pressure to return. However, it certainly didn’t help with their overall well being.
Although I am not permitted to take cameras into the camp, many of the asylum seekers have cameras – one even has a video camera – and when I was leaving for the last time on the Wednesday night, I posed for photographs for what must have been 30 minutes. I normally hate posing for pictures, but I didn’t mind this time as they snapped what seemed to be every combination of group photos in the dining hall, outside in the main compound and at the main gate.
It is very hard to describe the bitter-sweet nature of being able to talk with people, listen to their fears, anxieties and hopes and continue to promise to support them, but to never be able to guarantee for sure that they will be able to get freedom and safety. It was very difficult when leaving to have to add “I hope” every time you say “I will see you again”.
The asylum seekers are now allowed to go into the general Nauru community during the daytime (except Sundays and public holidays), which – while no substitute for freedom – is certainly a positive initiative. This meant I did see a few of them again on Thursday morning near the main Post Office at the internet centre where many of them go to check their emails.
All of us flew out on Thursday (except the Consul General). We stopped off briefly at Tarawa airport – an atoll that is part of Kiribati, just short of the international date line – and then on to Nadi in Fiji.
It is hard not to think of those desperate people we have left behind. I am almost sure some of them will be freed soon, but how many, who and when is impossible to know. I am also almost sure that there will be some who will again be told they are rejected and must return home. They will be more despondent than ever.
However, I still have the papers I was given by IOM on my first visit in July 2003, which states that 353 of the asylum seekers there “are rejected and have no realistic durable solution option other than assisted voluntary return”. I know that the vast majority of those continued to insist on the truth of their situation and ended up with a visa, despite all the threats and pressure from the Australian government. I know that most of the 54 who are left will also end up with a visa, but can never be sure who or when or even where to. They continue to walk the impossible tightrope between not giving in to hopelessness, yet not getting their hopes too high that they will be free, lest those hopes be dashed again.
Even many Australians who supported John Howard’s action in keeping the asylum seekers out of Australia in 2001 are recognising that having them still locked up nearly 4 years later is an unacceptable thing to do to any human being. The more Australians voice that basic fact, the greater the chance that they will all be freed and the sooner it will happen.
* The camps on Nauru are actually called Overseas Processing Centres (OPCs). However, whilst there is always pressure being put to reconsider their cases, it is stretching credulity to suggest that processing is still happening in any meaningful sense of the word, so I will continue to call them detention camps.