The last refugees leave Nauru. Should we allow Nauruans to come too?

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.

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  1. I guess you are right Senator,but shit,I am so offended ,by a lack of respect for being unemployed,and I have copped shit from seasonal workers for not doing it,that there has to be a gaurantee that the problem of the present people who can do this work,isnt given over to Professional Nationalist views of what is good for Australia to do.I dont go along with jingoism,and seasonal workers,are not represented by unions.Unions use the seasonal workers,as being one better.I would rather a personal relationship with a farmer, than be directly unionised,because if the pay rate is fair,set up to be so,and seasonal workers are never consulted,only unions gave input, then there is bound to be more flexible outcomes.Unfortunately the work requires people to wear themselves out,and to do it all year round requires a personality stability,probably couple, that have already managed to accumulate and run a efficient vehicle and maybe caravan.Its a rip off often,because of associated costs,which are at the front of inflation,and how it hurts.Farmers havent got much control over what happens in the market place,or even on farms often..and the number of orange trees pulled out!?It needs a deeper view, than the obvious advantages for this nation and overseas workers.It could possible help if the work was going back as produce to the workers countries..and transport costs are often a bullet in the head.Nauru would need a profitable bank to be part of transmit savings from pay,likewise other countries,And will I get to see Nauru!?

  2. I am so glad to see the end of that dreadful place, have little sympathy for the Nauruans who were making a buck off tormenting innocent people but feel they should be richly rewarded for doing Howard’s dirty work for him.

  3. Farmers might use the Nauruans as slave labour, just as the cane farmers used the Kanakas.

    Plenty of employers already have Asian and European slaves working twice as hard for less money.

    This is of no benefit to the workers, but of huge financial benefit to the employers and their shareholders.

    I think it would be good for all workplaces to be unionised so that NO ONE gets exploited.

    I doubt if Phil will get to see Nauru, short of winning the Gold Lotto.

  4. Subject to Nauru conducting a Census, I think the best option would be for Australia to make an open ended offer to assume control of the island and make it part of Australia in the same way Christmas Island is now.

    That way the Islanders counted in the Census (and their subsequent children) would be Australian citizens, free to come to the mainland or not as their preference may be.

    I think that gives them the greatest freedom of choice overall, and, would be the way least liable to be seen as imperialism or a takeover of some kind… both by Nauru and by other island nations in the Pacific and Indonesia who might become concerned about the idea of Australia picking off islands one by one in the future.

  5. All:

    Yes, Of course.

    Many years ago, the Nauruans were offered Curtis Island, just over from Gladstone in Central Queensland, butChief Hammer de Robert knocked back the Commonwealth government because there were too many strings attached to the deal.

    Had the Nauruans been offered full statehood or similar autonomy within our federal system at that time, things might have been different. Perhaps the federal government back then was terrified that Aborigines would use the proposed Nauruan resettlement as a precedent and demand a similar deal. [Anyway, the Senate would not have fallen apart if it had a few brown faces in it].

    Bringing in Nauruans and other Pacific Islanders might do all us more good than we have had out of the Australian-citizenship-for-sale privatized Immigration system … which was the hidden force behind the detention centres and the “Pacific Solution” of the Howard regime..

  6. I too congratulate the Rudd government for closing that horrific place, and like Marilyn I find it difficult to have a lot of sympathy for those Nauruans who were receiving money for misery. I think of the young man who was there the longest (I’ve forgotten his name, he lived for a while at Julian Burnside’s home until he got on his feet. A little known caring aspect of his pro bono work, and his wife’s too).In Nauru’s defence, I recall while reading Dark Victory by David Marr, that Downer did some pretty heavy bullying during the Tampa travesty, even bullying East Timor (Father Frank Brennan spoke of this too!)We don’t know what or how they were stood over! I believe that the hell hole at Nauru was at the end of Rubbish Tip Road! Says it all really?

    14,000 people isn’t many is it? It could also be a means of providing appropriate haven against the ravages of global warming. Already some areas have to keep moving to higher ground due to sea rises.(Coral/Tony?) There must be a stong union involvement, otherwise people will be abused financially and sadly physically. Anyone who’s been following the disgusting behaviour of some employers re 457 Visas will be aware of the abuses eg people promised their due wages only to have huge introduced ‘costs’ attached, eg 10 in a dwelling paying hundreds of dollars rent in a place that only warrants $300 or less per week, this the employer first reduced the wages amount quite drastically. These disgusting excuses for human beings should be hauled before the courts – under Howard it was the unions who were forced to take the initiative, both legally and humanely. Some were canvassed in the media, what about those that weren’t/aren’t publicized. A recent case in NSW rural area included the alleged sexual assault/s and harrassment of women workers. Investigations have revealed more women were abused. Disgusting people! I think that we should be doing more to help our neighbours, not helping ourselves to their resources only!

  7. Yes, the details reported in the SMH indicate precisely why migrant workers should get more protection and assistance, as they are more vulnerable to exploitation.

    Assuming the report is accurate, which I have no reason to doubt, then there has been a systemic and deliberate breaching of both the Migration Act and (I assume) some workplace laws as well.

    The case certainly doesn’t provide any reason not to let migrant workers in. It provide further indication that they need more support when they first arrive – something most of them get very little of.

  8. Having read Julian Burnside’s new book over the Xmas holidays, I’m delighted to hear that Nauru has been closed. I think what I find most difficult to understand is how complacent the Australian public has been….or maybe it’s the media who’ve been complacent and therefore many Australians don’t know the full story.

    On a side issue, I completely disagree with some of the comments on here about the need for a strong union presence to protect migrant workers from the exploits they suffer under 457 visas.

    It is the government’s responsibility to monitor compliance with these visas and under the Howard government, the immigration department wasn’t funded well enough to keep up with these compliance checks. The Rudd government should increase the department’s funding rather than getting the unions to do their work for them.

    457 visas have done a lot of good for both the Australian economy and the migrants who come here to share in our prosperity. Yes, there are some problems, but the government should try doing their job properly before going down the very slippery union slope.

  9. Vicki Stocks:

    We need to consider how slippery a slope all workers are on without unionisation, not to mention the effects on the people in their care.

    Today an RN at the nursing home told me all nursing homes have different rates of pay. She knows this because she is an agency nurse on a contract, who has worked all over the place.

    Agency nurses receive more pay because they are called in to different nursing homes every day, or may be on short term contracts, as she is.

    I think there should be a standardised rate of pay for all nurses throughout the system to encourage permanence of employment. We lose our nurses all the time, despite the place being a “state of the art” facility with a HUGE bond (probably with poor working conditions and pay).

    The only time there are resources in the cupboard (shampoo, toothpaste etc) is when the accreditation team is due to arrive.

    When I go to visit my mother, I end up having to do some of the nurses’ and kitchenhands’ work myself. If I don’t set all the tables, put clothing protectors (bibs) on the people and clear some of the dishes, I don’t think some of the people would get fed, due to lack of staff and time.

    The agency staff don’t know what they’re doing, because they’re not there all the time. Everyone has different care needs.

    It seems to me this place has a significant problem with “Mondayitis”, which sends the place into chaos.

    When we had compulsory unionism in the public sector, workers rights’ and pay were protected. Under those conditions, people were probably more likely to turn up for work every day.

    Now there is very little protection for anyone, which seems to have a “knock on” effect.

  10. A post of mine before your comment under the last one went missing in action.It may of been to accusatory by some interfering so and so,but if you removed it,thats OK Senator!I dont want to know either way, time will be on my side.There maybe within,upon thinking later,a expression such as political grief,and avoid night driving.

  11. I understand that everybody contributing to the discussion on Nauru is right. It only means one thing: Something is wrong with our system. Australia is not the only country that faces challenges of globalisation, monetarism and unfair and complicated taxation system.

    Small businesses have better chance to survive on government contracts. There have been government abuses (preferred supplier -usually friends of important people). Multinational companies simply organise ‘a squad’ of i.e. Filipinos and send them to different countries for ‘a job to be done’. Then, the people are sent home and wait for another ‘overseas employment agency’ contract.Yes, they pay bribes to get a contract and then, they pay bribes to stay on the job in Australia. Otherwise, they are accused of ‘poor English’ and have their visas cancelled.
    Small businesses cannot afford short term ‘racket’ employment. We still have payroll tax and other tax niceties.

    And we should not blame Nauru people for getting money from the misery of others.
    In 2001 I was returning from Curtin Base in WA where I had interviewed poor boat people. The conditions were beyond belief. People of all ages and sexes were squashed under military tents, in tropical heat. Many of them were doctors and nurses from the bombed hospital in Kabul.
    And yet, Broom and Derby were flourishing. Immigration officials were regularly flying from Perth, there were nurses, interpreters, guards,migration lawyers,(many of them staying there for months and getting megabucks – apparently friends of government officials) using rented cars at government expense, staying in the hotels in Broome and Derby, so everybody was happy: restaurants, pearl industry, taxi drivers,local shops etc.

    I was shocked when waiting for my plane back at the Perth airport and reading ‘Western Australian’ I read a petition of local people to ..’set up another detention centre to further boost the economy of the region.’

  12. Having read Julian Burnside’s new book over the Xmas holidays, Vicki.#9 What’s the title, please?

    I agree that it’s the government’s responsibility, but I do think as Coral says, that the best protection for any worker is to be in a union. It’s just that it was a fact, that it was the union/s who blew the whistle on those greedy mongrels who used their labours for as little money as possible, from those in the hospitality industry to the building industry. With the ABCC those workers are really being screwed!

    “It is the government’s responsibility to monitor compliance with these visas and under the Howard government, the immigration department wasn’t funded well enough to keep up with these compliance checks”. The main issue was the fact that the Howard government didn’t have the political WILL to do it. Also, some might recall the multi (b)millionaire Gerry Harvey (Harvey Normon)who canvassed the ‘necessity’ of having a 2 tier workforce. Those paid the award etc and those working for HALF that amount?There was a concerted campaign by ACTU with Joe Hockey getting his staff to keep our particulars etc. Big brother in 2007! Bully!Like all bullies he’s a coward though, went to water when we sent him heaps of emails, phone calls etc.

    We’ll have to keep the pressure on to make sure the injustices are stopped!457 visas give impoverished people a chance for a decent income!

  13. Naomi

    Burnside’s latest book is called “Watching Brief”.

    In regards to unions, I agree that being a member of a union usually provides good protection for a worker.

    However, my point was that (a) some unions (certainly not all) have a hostility to migrants, using the (usually false) claim that migrants take the jobs of their members and drive down conditions, and (b) migrants workers are less likely to be unionised, particularly just upon arrival, so expecting the unions to be able to adequately police their treatment is unrealistic, even though some of them do as good a job as possible in this regard.

  14. Coral, on-call and casual work has always attracted higher rates of pay that what used to be called permanent work. I’d like to hear why you think that people who are not entitled ot permananet benefits sould be paid the same as those who are.

  15. Togret:

    I think the main reason is that it is much harder to attract permanent nurses who have responsibility for the day-to-day care of the elderly, if they can make a lot more money working for an agency, with minimal responsibility.

    The elderly in nursing homes need continuity of care from people who know them well.

    I am told the Clinical Nurse (boss) had to break up a group of Assistants in Nursing discussing how much better off they would be working for an agency.

    The best way to keep the AINs (and continuity of care) would be to increase their wages.

    As you are probably aware, there is still no quota on nurses in nursing homes, due to an industry shortage.

    The place I’m talking about has only 6-1/2 nurses per shift to look after close to 50 people, and that’s on a good day.

    I’ve heard that some other nursing homes have 8 nurses per shift, and they get paid more.

    So between agency nurses being paid more (with less responsibility) and better options available elsewhere, how are we supposed to keep our nurses?

    My concerns are specific to nursing homes, and not other workplaces.


    This nursing home attracts plenty of migrant workers.

    Although the other employees seem to treat them well and look after their interests, they are still afraid of the management – with good reason.

    People who can’t speak much English are VERY NERVOUS. It also takes them quite some time to understand workplace practices. Some of them are also very unsure of their reception by other people, which makes them even more nervous.

    If they suffer a workplace injury, they may be afraid to report it, despite the encouragement of supervisors.

  16. Not only should a given number of Nauruans be permitted to come here as seasonal workers,what about Australia granting some traineeships in useful trades ,and a limited number of further education opportunities in University/TAFE? That way not only would remittances be going back to families ,but the scholars who returned could improve their country, and would probably have made contacts here that will be long lasting.That is the rational for schools & Unis in Australia having exchange programs to Eurpoe/USA etc.All this would cost far less than the millions spent housing refugees and since, prior to the election, Mr Rudd mentioned compensation for the loss of finance for running the detention centres this would be a multi-faceted way of trying to make amends.

  17. I am from Nauru. The refugee camps described by the liberal press as hell were like luxury hotels compared to many Nauruan homes. The refugees were served food far better than what you will find in an average Nauruan house.

    The near collapse state of our economy was our fault right from the beginning when we achieved political independence from Australia in 1968. We spend more than what we earned and we kept electing these corrupt and incompetent politicians to office until its too late and all the wealth has gone. As the biblical saying goes, you reap what you sow. We are reaping right now the fruits of yesteyears. The reform govt in place is the best we’ve ever had, because of the reforms and fiscal discipline brought to the economy. I suppose we don’t have much choice.

    The economy now is in such a precarious state that we have to look to external opportunites for sources of employment. With a tiny land area of only 21 square kilometres and a population of around 10,000, this equates to nearly 500 people per square kilometre. If you consider that 80% of the land has been devastated by about a century of open-cast mining rendering it uninhabitable, population density will read 2400 people residing on a square kilometre of land. Now that is very very crowded and offers very very little prospect in terms of development opportunities and employment.

    Nauru was once an Australian territory and Australia is a country that Nauru relies on for nearly 100% of its imports. We have adopted the Australian currency and Aussie Rules is our national sport. We in Nauru view the Australia-Nauru relationship as a special one that dates back to the early 20th century when our forefathers welcomed the first Australians to our shores.

    The diverse views and comments in this forum are appreciated. In Nauru’s time of great need, a helping hand from Australia in permitting our people access to Australia to work would greatly help our people and our country

  18. With the greatest of respect, Peter, and with great sympathy for the population of Nauru, the people in detention camps were imprisoned under an inhumane and in my view immoral policy which led to their not knowing whether they’d ever be released. These were people who have demonstrated that they had well-founded reasons for fleeing their original homes, or they’d have been sent back there. Imprisonment for having committed no crime, for an unknown period, no matter whether they were fed as well or better than those on the other side of the barbed wire, is the issue which concerned most Australians.

    The issue of Nauru, though very important, is not helped by dismissing the suffering of the detainees.

  19. I am somewhat dismayed by some of the comments that Nauruans shouldnt get Australia’s sympathy.

    It was a decision of the Australian and Nauruan Governments that the “Pacific Solution” was put into practice and the Nauruan people really had no say in it.

    Lets find out to begin with why Australia cannot abandon Nauru and that Australia has a moral, social and economic responsibility to Nauru.

    When Nauru gained independence from Australia in 1968. Australia made Nauru pay $20 Million to take ownership of the Phosphate Industry. The payment was for the infrastructure and machinery of the Nauru phosphate industry, instead Nauru should have annexed the phosphate industry and not paid for it due to the fact that it was built on the profits of Nauru’s phosphate.

    Australia mined Nauru’s phosphate for nearly 100 years and paid Nauruans half a cent per ton telling Nauruans that there was no world price for phosphate and that it was left up to them to make their own estimate. Something that the Nauruans found out much later was a lie.

    Australia mined out 3/4 of the phosphate deposits and in the process destroyed much of Nauru’s landscape making it virtually inhabitable. It did not rehabilitate the mined out lands nor put into place any fund for future rehabilitation.

    Australia agreed to pay out of court settlement a pitiful amount to stop Nauru taking them to Internation Court of Justice for the devastation of the country.

    Australia has up to now not paid the full amount of the promised out of court compensation and has taken credit for some of the installments as monetary aid to Nauru.

    Australia in the mid 19th century needed a cheap fertilizer to build its Agriculture and it got it nearly free from Nauru.

    It has to be recognised that Nauru’s phosphate was partly responsible for Australia’s successful agricultural industry in the latter part of the 19th and the beginning 20th century.

    Sympathy for Nauruans? Australia owes!!

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