I visited Nauru on four separate occasions between 2003 and 2007. I have written many articles and blog posts and given many speeches on the disgraceful abuse of human rights and degrading of basic human decency known as the Pacific Solution, where well over a thousand asylum seekers – including many children – were forcibly removed to that island and kept there in a situation of extreme isolation, stress and uncertainty for prolonged periods. The Labor government should be congratulated for acting quickly and in a matter of fact way to bring an end to this abomination and remove the last of the Sri Lankan refugees from Nauru.
The detention centres on Nauru were an unquestionably cruel and expensive mechanism for helping John Howard to win an election in 2001. However, it also had the effect of providing the most significant source of employment on Nauru, which is a tiny nation that is close to bankrupt. Given Nauru’s willingness to be used as a holding pen for Australia’s refugees, as well as the longer historical ties Australia has to that country, we have a special obligation to continue to provide assistance to Nauru in their efforts to regain economic stability.
I must say I find it very hard to see how Nauru can become economically self-sufficient, even in the long-term, but Australia should none the less keep providing development and other assistance. However, one simple and very inexpensive action we could take straight away which could be a significant help to at least some Nauruans would be to allow them the same sort of access to Australia as we currently provide to New Zealanders. It would have minimal (and mostly positive) impact on Australia, but could provide a good boost for Nauru. Migrant remittances are now a significant part of the economy of many poorer countries, and of course Australia would benefit from the work the migrants would do.
There have been calls for some time for people from some Pacific Island countries to be able to access some form of seasonal worker program in Australia. We currently allow over 100 000 people into Australia each year on Working Holiday Visas, but this is only available to people from select countries – mainly Europe, North America and Japan, but definitely not from Pacific Islands. A seasonal worker program would be far more efficient and useful in filling in labour market gaps than the Working Holiday Visa, and would have the added benefit of providing some economic assistance to people from poorer countries in our own region. I can’t see what harm could be done by trialling this with people from a select number of Pacific Island nations, one of which could include Nauru. I have heard different figures for the population of Nauru, varying between 10 000 and about 14 000.
Whilst migrant workers are often likely to be at greater risk of exploitation, this is a reason to ensure proper safeguards, rather than use this risk as an excuse to keep them out. It’s hard not to hear echoes of the old white Australia rhetoric and the mythology that migrants ‘take Aussie jobs’ in the arguments put forward by some trade unions against allowing workers in from Pacific Islands.