Welcome to Nauru. Welcome to Pleasant Island.
If ever a countries moniker was misleading then it is surely Nauru’s.
Nauru is a violent island.
A violent colonial history has seen, like many other Pacific Island nations, indigenous beliefs drowned in sea of fervent Christian missionary teachings. Nauruans are now amongst the most devoted of converted Pacific nations. Throughout the 20th century, the islands phosphate was mined close to extinction. Dead and colourless ‘once were phosphate’ graveyards now pepper the island. Presently, with a population of less than 10,000, Nauru holds the record as the world’s most obese country. By percentage, Nauruans are the most overweight people anywhere on earth, a feat they have achieved without McDonalds.
However, trouncing all of this psychological, environmental and physical violence is the Nauru Regional Processing Centre, an institutional scarecrow, where over 400 men from Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan currently languish and many more, including women and children are likely to follow.
The name itself is a violent misrepresentation. The non-threatening, modern speak title, ‘Nauru Regional Processing Centre,’ is an affront to the English language, a sin of deceit for what it really is, an insult against the intelligence of the Australian and Nauruan public and strike against the soul of those whose parrot it. I have written before that processing is something which is done to meat, not humans. If one insists that people can be processed, then the question should be asked about what sort of process the men are going through on Nauru. Those in control will argue a process of ‘refugee status determination,’ others, a process of dwindling hope, mental deterioration and emotional breakdown. Both are true, though the pace of each varies dramatically. Either way, what Nauru has is a detention centre, where movement is restricted, punishment occurs and those inside are removed from society indefinitely. Finally, the absence of Australia’s name from the title should not hide the fact that it is desired, designed, created, operated and sanctioned by the Australian government. No matter who is in power in Australia – Labour, Liberal, Gillard or Abbott – they are pulling the strings and writing the cheques in Nauru.
How a man comes to be on Nauru begins with a violent extraction from Australia. Having escaped persecution in his home country, the man usually reaches Christmas Island where he hopes to find protection as a refugee. He will be identified by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) as one of the most mentally and physically capable detainees. Only the ‘strongest’ are sent to Nauru. Their strength, or otherwise, is determined by a ‘pre transfer assessment’ including a ‘vulnerability and needs review’. The conditions on Nauru are so appalling that the weaker men would not survive and incidences of self harm, including cutting, burning, voluntary starvation and attempted suicide, would be at levels higher than they currently are.
Of course, like the caring and committed department they are, DIAC assure the men that both Australian and Nauruan governments ‘are committed to giving you care and support,’ and will treat them ‘with dignity and respect, in line with human rights standards’ and recognise that ‘this information [being sent to Nauru] may cause concern about your future.’ But the bottom line remains – you are going to Nauru and there is nothing you can do about it, so get used to the idea!
When a man is identified as suitable for Nauru, he is given only a couple of hours notice, before being ripped from Australia and flown thousands of kilometres east, deep into the Pacific Ocean. All know of and have heard of Nauru, and upon arrival a mix of anger, frustration, despair and confusion washes over them. They are now caught in the ‘regional processing – no advantage’ web that is Australia’s perpetually failed asylum seeker policy.
Nauru is described by some refugee advocates as a prison.
In theory, prisons serve four main functions concurrently – punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation (where possible) and the protection of the general public, by the temporary or permanent removal of criminals. Nauru Regional Processing Centre accomplishes one of these and exists as an attempt at another, however does not house criminals, rather, asylum seekers. Furthermore, criminals who are not serving life sentences know when they will be leaving prison. An asylum seeker on Nauru does not know when he will leave. Of course he will be highly encouraged to meet with the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) and return to his home country ‘voluntarily’ and discreetly and at any time. Otherwise, the only knowledge he has about his departure is that it depends on the application of the rubbery ‘no advantage,’ principle, which, presently, could mean years on Nauru – even after he is found to be a refugee.
The men on Nauru are not criminals. Therefore, the ongoing physical and mental punishment of them is unwarranted and unjustified. Furthermore, the deterrent element of Nauru is failing. The Pacific scarecrow is not reducing flight. Six months after its exhumation, alongside PNG’s Manus Island and the abolition of work rights for those on bridging visas in Australia, asylum seeker boats have not ceased or even slowed, they have arrived at an even greater rate, evidence that push factors are far more powerful than pull factors.
When the detention camp opened in September last year, the men in Nauru were housed in tents. The transfer to new accommodation, enclosed yet still inadequate, only began in March this year and is now complete. The weather in Nauru swings between sweltering equatorial humidity and ferocious tropical storms. Apart from the Sri Lankans, it is weather the men inside are completely unfamiliar with. For 6-7 months the men lived in open air accommodation, with only fans and small amounts of shade to provide respite from the heat, and canvas and tarpaulins as shelter from the rains. Whatsmore, when the camp was flooded late last year, the men were required to assist with the clean up and re-erection of tents. Since those rains, crushed stones have been used to cover the once grassed area to reduce the likelihood of flooding. The only chance a detainee now has of touching grass is if he takes a supervised excursion around the island.
‘Making them wait. A sure way to provoke people and to put evil thoughts into their heads is to make them wait a long time. This gives rise to immorality.’
The mental punishment of the men on Nauru is a far greater abuse than the physical. Each day begins with a sudden Nauruan dawn. There is nothing gradual about a Nauruan sunrise. After a few minutes of twilight in the morning sky, the sun announces itself with full force, and the equatorial heat, which merely subsided during the night, swells once again.
As the men gradually awake, many having managed only 4 or 5 hours sleep, some less, the possibility of having something meaningful to accomplish rapidly deteriorates, if it ever existed. While the men are provided with activities they can participate in, there is only so much table tennis or Carrum one can play, only so many movies one can watch and only one hour allowed in the gym or computer room per day. English classes are probably the most meaningful and stimulating activity the men can involve themselves in, however they are not guaranteed resettlement in an English speaking country if they are found to be refugees – Australia’s ‘regional processing solution’ extends potentially to such Asian-Pacific nations as Sweden and Canada. Men who were once mechanics, engineers, students, fishermen or other professionals are each day offered only menial activities, which anybody with an active mind would quickly tire of.
As the hours turn into days, the days into weeks and the weeks, months, monotony, takes its toll.
With ample idle time the men are left to dwell on the situation of their families, wherever they may be, fret over their refugee visa application and consider the prospect of years inside the Nauru detention camp – even after being found a refugee. For once an asylum seeker becomes a refugee, ‘no advantage’ kicks in and they simply enter a pool of refugees awaiting resettlement, thus potentially turning the Nauru Regional Processing Centre into the Nauru Refugee Camp, or a more politically friendly name – perhaps, the Nauru Regional Post-Processing Centre. With meaningless days, weeks, months and possibly years on their hands, many turn their aggression, depression and fears inward, resulting in mental deterioration and self harm. That it the deterrent function of Nauru. Break down the most physically and mentally strongest men, leave them languishing for years in a detention camp in Nauru, create an environment where self harm festers and frustration turns into riots, where living conditions are substandard and hope is washed away in the evening tides.
In March this year, the Interim Joint Advisory Committee (IJAC) visited Nauru, coinciding with the beginning of ‘processing,’ that is, the men inside being able to prepare their claims with the assistance of Australian legal firms. After six months of languishing in tents, braving energy sapping humidity and torrential rains, fighting boredom and frustration, being surrounded by countless incidences of self harm and even rioting, some of the men were finally able to lodge their claims. At meetings with IJAC the men asked one of the parents of ‘no advantage’ if they were in Nauru as an example. The hollow, straight bat responses towed the government line of ‘regional processing’ and ‘regular migration pathways’ and did not dispel any beliefs that Nauru’s existence is based primarily in punishment and deterrence, rather than the benevolence of saving lives at sea.
On the Nauruan marionette, two of the most important strings that are presently limp are the appeals process for so called ‘negative outcomes’ – in other words, a rejection of someone’s refugee claim – and Nauru’s privacy laws, or rather lack thereof. In all of the ‘capacity building,’ the Australian Government has been undertaking with Nauru, these two measures have fallen by the wayside, or, if one is a cynic, have been deliberately excluded. Their omission means that an asylum seeker ‘processed’ in Nauru is not offered the same legal opportunities as an asylum seeker who is ‘processed’ in Australia.
An asylum seeker in Australia is processed under Australian law and can appeal to the Refugee Review Tribunal, through the Supreme and High Courts, or to the Minister of Immigration directly. The asylum seekers on Nauru are caught in a confusing concoction of Australian, Nauruan and New Zealand partnerships and agreements. An asylum seeker on Nauru has his case heard by a single person – an Australian resident living in Nauru funded by New Zealand aid dollars – and has only one appeal, which is not independent. However, he can appeal, on a point of law, to the Nauruan Supreme Court and then the Australian High Court, evidence of who really is running the show there. Whatsmore, Nauru currently has zero ‘refugee status determination officers’ actively working, they are still in training in Australia and Nauru, further prolonging the ‘processing.’
After navigating through this Pacific maelstrom, the man may still receive a ‘negative outcome.’ However, perhaps he cannot to return to his home country, for example he may be a Kurdish man from Iran or Rohingyan man from Burma. Presently there is no plan for what should happen, thus the man would remain somewhere in Nauru, possibly at the, to be, ‘Nauru Regional Post-Processing Centre?’
The exhumation of Nauru and Manus Island detention centres was heralded as the ‘circuit breaker,’ which would end ‘dangerous’ boat journeys to Australia. Enthusiastically supported by the Opposition, the rebirth is stillborn, with boats continuing to arrive more than six months after opening and those inside suffering greatly.
The only circuits Nauru and Manus Island have been and will be successful in breaking, are the ones inside the heads of those who languish inside.