Following is a report on aspects of my recent visit to Nauru, focusing on the asylum seekers and refugees there.
This was the fourth time I have visited Nauru. At the end of each visit, I have left expecting that I would not return, but have subsequently found myself drawn back by the continuing presence of refugees marooned there as a result of decisions by the Australian government.
However, this time was very different from past visits in a number of ways. Most significantly, the asylum seekers there are different people. My previous visits in 2003, 2004 and 2005 all involved the plight of the same group of people – diminishing in number with each subsequent visit – who had been stuck there since first being sent offshore and outside any formal legal protections by the Australian government back in 2001. These people had received virtually no outside assistance or independent visits prior to my 2003 visit, and all those still there at that stage had had their claims rejected and were being regularly told their future involved no option other than returning to where they had fled. So their level of desperation and anxiety was already well advanced and entrenched. Over time, Australia (and New Zealand) slowly accepted more and more of them as refugees, so while each subsequent visit was to a smaller group of people, those who did remain were more and more traumatised.
It is tragic that just as the last refugee was finally finding sanctuary five years after the whole sordid process commenced, the Australian government has started it all anew. However, that is what has occurred, and so it was a fresh group of asylum seekers and a newly renovated camp that I saw on this occasion.
There are currently 90 asylum seekers on Nauru. 8 of them are Rohingya people, originally from Burma, who have been on Nauru for around seven months already. 82 of them are Tamils from Sri Lanka who have been there about a month. All of them are male. There is one 17 year old boy amongst them, who is about to turn 18. The absence of children and women is one clear difference from my previous visits. One memory I will never forget is the many young children who swarmed around me the first time I went to the detention centre there in 2003 – nor will I forget the disgraceful fact that it was our government who put those children in that centre, where they had been forced to remain for (at that stage) nearly two years.
Having been there for a relatively shorter time (thus far), having received some legal assistance and some outside contact, the current group are likely to be less traumatised by their immediate situation (thus far) than those refugees I encountered on my previous visits, although it is fair to say that some of the Burmese may be starting to feel the strain after seven months. My understanding is that none of the Burmese have yet to even have a formal interview with Australian immigration officials regarding their claims, although interviews with some of the Tamils have started to occur – indeed, Australian immigration officials were present and conducting some interviews at the time of my visit. There has also clearly been some consideration given by the Australian government to seeing whether they could send the Burmese back to somewhere like Malaysia. Knowing this prospect had been explored would undoubtedly have the potential to add significantly to their stress levels.
I met with most of the Burmese, and a sizeable group of the Tamils. I don’t get involved in assessing the strength or otherwise of individual people’s cases on a visit like this, and I am always careful to make clear to the asylum seekers I meet with that I have no direct power over their cases and cannot promise any particular outcome. I mainly go to examine the facilities, get an idea of the situation from the people running the camps and to let the asylum seekers know that people in Australia have not forgotten them, are watching what is going on and will try to keep the pressure on the Australian government to assess their claims fairly and promptly.
The asylum seekers were aware of the recent announcement regarding some sort of agreement between Australia and the USA. There was a four page long notice – in English and Tamil languages – on the camp notice board ‘explaining’ the agreement. I was asked what it might mean for them, which was difficult to answer, as nobody knows for sure (not to mention that the whole agreement has been received with general bewilderment by most people in Australia, regardless of their views about the asylum seeker issue). Whilst being able to settle in the USA is an appropriate outcome for someone seeking asylum, the announcement of the agreement adds another element of uncertainty about what their future might hold.
Whilst each asylum claim has to be assessed on the basis of each individual’s situation, it is worth noting the general situation in the countries they are from.
They have been called one of the world’s most persecuted people. Some argue that they are also one of the most forgotten.The Rohingya people of western Burma’s Arakan State are forbidden from marrying or travelling without permission and have no legal right to own land or property.
Not only that but even though groups of them have been living in Burma for hundreds of years, they are also denied citizenship by the country’s military government.
For decades this Muslim group of ethnic-Indo origins have been considered the lowest of the low in this mainly Buddhist country.
In addition to their almost total lack of legal rights many have been regularly beaten by police, forced to do slave labour and jailed for little or no reason.
In 1992, 250,000 Rohingyas, which is a third of their population, fled over Burma’s border into Bangladesh to escape the persecution. Fourteen years later more than 20,000 of them are still in the same refugee camps and around 100,000 more are living illegally in the surrounding area.
For some details on the situation faced by some Tamils in Sri Lanka, read this UNHCR report from the end of 2006.
It includes the following assessment:
In addition to the situation of widespread insecurity and the impact of the armed conflict in the North and East, Tamils in and from these regions are at risk of targeted violations of their human rights from all parties to the armed conflict. Harassment, intimidation, arrest, detention, torture, abduction and killing at the hands of government forces, the LTTE and paramilitary or armed groups are frequently reported to be inflicted on Tamils from the North and East. (my emphasis)
and among other things, recommends that “no Tamil from the North or East should be returned forcibly until there is significant improvement in the security situation in Sri Lanka”.
Australia originally funded the establishment of two detention centres on Nauru, one called Topside and the other State House. Topside was the main centre on my first two visits, but by 2005 all the remaining people were at the State House site. Topside has stood empty since then, although it is still maintained (at Australian taxpayer expense of course). Whilst it was previously accurate to call these places detention centres (despite the Australian government’s insistence on calling them ‘processing centres’ long after all ‘processing’ of the people remaining there had been done), I don’t think one can accurately use this term any more. The asylum seekers all have the ability to move around Nauru during the day, and there is a bus which circulates regularly around the island to assist them to get around. The whole island and nation of Nauru covers only 21 square kilometres, and the vast bulk of the settled areas are along the round which runs around the outside of the island.
Another significant difference between the camp in Nauru and the detention centres in Australia is that the one in Nauru is not run like a jail. The Nauru camp is run by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Whilst I am unhappy that they are an enabler for the Australian government’s desires to place asylum seekers outside legal processes and protections, they do carry out their work on Nauru with a clear focus on the wellbeing of the asylum seekers whilst they are there. The contrast with the many Australian detention centres I’ve visited is very obvious – these centres are run like jails, and that is generally the way the detainees are treated.
Whilst the facilities on Nauru are not luxurious, they are certainly better than what was provided in the past. The camp has been recently renovated. People live two to a room, which each contain a bunk bed (single size). The rooms are about as wide again as the bed. There is some recreational equipment like table tennis, small pool table, television, videos, weights, plus space outside for volleyball or soccer. There is full-time psychiatrist there to assist in the case of the asylum seekers, as well as another medical officer. All indications, including my own experience, suggest the meals provided there are fine.
Nauru’s financial difficulties mean the island community has problems getting the necessary fuel and equipment maintenance to have consistent power generation, with regular power rationing. However, the camp has its own generators and water supply, so power supply is not a problem. Phone contact has been a problem, but this seems like it is being addressed, with a direct line into the camp now available. The asylum seekers can also ring out, although they are only provided with enough funds each week to cover a fairly short amount of time. During the day they are all able to travel to Nauru civic centre to use the internet facilities, and IOM have also set up a dedicated email address which people from elsewhere can use to send material to the people in the camp.
The fact that people are now more readily allowed into Nauru to visit the camp, and the asylum seekers are allowed out and about on the island, is a big shift from the situation a few years ago. I think the current Nauru government plays a role in this. Every indication I have is that they are concerned about ensuring that this time people are not just dumped there indefinitely, and have as good a conditions as possible while they are there. However, while some independent legal advisors have been able to get to Nauru to provide some assistance, the difficulties presented with the large travel costs and distances has meant that this assistance is not as complete as it should be.
Of course it should be mentioned that every single aspect of the camp –the housing, the equipment, the catering, the power, the water, the phones, the staffing (and their housing), the security, the travel of Australian government officials to and from Nauru and everything else that relates to the keeping of asylum seekers there – is paid for by the Australian taxpayer.
One of the ironies in the Labor party’s asylum seeker policy to oppose sending asylum seekers to offshore camps like Nauru, but still retain the excision of Christmas Island – an Australian territory – from our country’s migration zone (meaning people cannot legally apply for a protection visa if they arrive there), is that asylum seekers on Nauru at least live in a relatively free environment, whereas those on Christmas Island are presumably going to be kept in the new, $400+ million high security facility there.
Whilst the conditions people are kept in are important, it is the uncertainty over their future and the fear of being sent back to danger which is the biggest issue. At least on Christmas Island there is some access to Australian law, even though a refugee there has no automatic right to protection. On Nauru, the whole process is conducted outside the direct reach of Australian law. So even though Australian immigration officials go to the island and conduct the assessments of the refugee claim, there is no legal process to ensure they do it fairly or correctly – and there is clear evidence that some of the claims of those who were sent there in 2001 were assessed in a very inadequate way. Nor is there a legal way of ensuring people are not sent back to unsafe situations – and there is also evidence that some of those who gave in to persistent pressure applied to them by the Australian government in 2002 and 2003 and returned did have to flee once again.
So my shorthand summary is that conditions have improved from past years, as has the ability to access some assistance – although it certainly falls short of the full and proper legal assistance which should be the right of every asylum seekers who arrives in Australia (and which experience also shows usually means quicker and more accurate assessment of claims). However, the core problem remains that the asylum seekers are kept outside any legal framework. It is too early to judge with the Tamils, but there are already worrying signs of how long it is taking for the Burmese to have their claims assessed and that they may face the prospect of a drawn out and insecure situation.
We should remember that the only piece of legislation the Coalition government has failed to get through the Senate since they gained control of it following the last election dealt with efforts to make it easier to send asylum seekers to places like Nauru. It was less than a year ago that a Senate Committee report unanimously rejected this legislation. There were many damning aspects to the Senate Committee’s report that looked at that legislation. Here is just one example:
Of particular significance is the fact that, as currently drafted, the Bill omits appropriate scrutiny and oversight of the procedures it seeks to put in place. The committee considers that it is entirely inappropriate that initial refugee status determination decisions made by departmental officials are only internally reviewable. Decisions made by the Department should have, at the very least, the same quality of merits review applicable to them, regardless of geographic location.
The specific concerns which all Senators, including Coalition Senators, found regarding the lack of protections for people who would be sent to Nauru under that legislation is precisely what occurs now for those who have been sent there, as a consequence of laws voted for by both major parties prior to the 2001 election.
The best protection currently for the asylum seekers Australia has sent to Nauru is continuing scrutiny of what is happening to them, and continuing pressure on the Australian government to undertake assessment of their refugee claims which is prompt and demonstrably fair, as well as ensuring quick resettlement for those who are found to be refugees.