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Tough talk about a return to the Pacific Solution

By Susan Metcalfe - posted Thursday, 3 June 2010

If Tony Abbott wants Australia to return to processing asylum seekers in poor Pacific countries he might first want to assess the carnage that remains from the Howard government’s past Pacific Solution policy.

When the Coalition announced a return to the Pacific Solution last week one Australian man wrote to his well respected colleague in Nauru: “Abbott was interviewed this morning and said no country had been approached as he is in opposition and can’t proceed yet with direct contact to any country ... But if a country approached him, that’s different. If you could screw the (Australian) Govt for say $100 million a year (4 times the budget) your lifestyle would improve and you would be able to get the phosphate industry running properly ...”

The response this man received from his Nauruan colleague read: “We have experienced this before and we do not want it. The asylum seekers give Nauru a bad name and it’s not worth the money. The minders from Australia want to live in paradise and they inflate our prices and other charges for goods and services. They think they own the place … The only Nauruans who benefit are those with contact at ministerial level.”


This view was shared by many I met on visits to Nauru between 2005 and 2008 along with a deeply felt resentment towards some of the more extraverted Australian workers living within the largely conservative Christian community. “They drink incessantly, flash their glowing white behinds out of car windows as they drive around the island and every second word is ‘F**k’”, said one Nauruan in 2006 about some of the Australian workers from the camp.

Asylum seekers were also resented by many of the Nauru locals and an IOM (International Organization for Migration) report released under FOI (Freedom of Information) notes that even doctors at the local hospital “showed reluctance in attending to the needs of the migrants [as they were called by IOM] that were referred to the hospital”.

Some Nauruans would surely welcome a return to jobs that would be available if the camps were reopened but in the past the positions usually went to people living in the Meneng district, where the centres were located, and new positions were largely offered to friends or relatives of those already employed. Divisions cut deeply across the country: “Nauruan people don’t help each other like they used to before the camps,” one local said to me in 2007.

Over in Papua New Guinea the deal struck between Prime Minister Merkere Morauta and Australia in 2001 was widely unpopular from the outset and when PNG Foreign Minister John Pundari openly disagreed with an Australian request to increase the capacity of the camp he was sacked. In 2002 when Australian journalists snuck into the country to report on the camp, from which all independent visitors were barred, they heard accounts from locals who had witnessed asylum seekers trying to hang themselves or cut themselves with glass.

Reports obtained under FOI note the cases of two pregnant women who became so depressed inside the PNG camp in 2002 that they had “verbally expressed their desire to abort their pregnancies”. By mid 2003 all but one of Australia’s remaining asylum seekers had either been transferred to Nauru or resettled elsewhere and in 2004 the PNG camp was mothballed and never used again.

Nauru continued to house asylum seekers for the Australian government but in return the country was often treated with contempt. The Australian government never lived up to it’s side of the deal to process people within six months, and in 2006 Nauru’s Foreign Minister was forced to speak out in the media after repeated requests to remove the remaining two Iraqis were ignored. When one of the men was evacuated to Australia after becoming suicidal Minister Adeang said on the ABC:


The processing centre is that. It is a processing centre, not a residential facility, security assessment or not. And frankly speaking, it does not reflect on us very well as a government, as a country and as a people to be held responsible for somebody who, on our soil, turns out to be mistreated to the point he becomes suicidal.

When in 2006 the Nauru government decided to charge the Australian government $100,000 to host the lone remaining Iraqi who had arrived on a boat in 2001, one Australian official told me that if Nauru wanted to play hard ball Australia would just take away their AID.

Any return to the Howard government’s Pacific Solution policy under a future Coalition regime would likely mean a repeat of the same dubious deals we saw structured outside of Australia’s normal AID programs that even Australian officials condemned. Mark Thomson who was head of Ausaid’s Nauru program in 2001 said on the record in 2007: “It's just an unmitigated bribe, while we preach the virtues of good governance and the rule of law to our Pacific neighbours.”

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About the Author

Susan Metcalfe is a writer and researcher who made many independent visits to the Nauru detention centre during the time of the Howard government’s Pacific Solution policy. She is the author of the recently published book The Pacific Solution (Australian Scholarly Publishing

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