While many countries are concerned by talk of a return to processing asylum seekers in poor Pacific countries, Nauru's caretaker president, Marcus Stephen, is raising his hand to be involved. While I empathise with the impoverished conditions in Nauru, Australia should never again be engaged in dodgy deals with this Pacific neighbour. For Nauru, it's all about the money.
Along with its past reputation for offshore banking, money laundering and selling passports, Nauru has a history of arbitrarily banning outside entry to the small country. Australians were largely denied access for much of the time the Nauru camps were in operation. I was only able to enter the country for the first time in 2005. I made 10 visits to the camp between 2005 and 2008 but there were times when the Nauru Government simply stopped replying to my visa requests. There was never a guarantee I would be allowed back in.
I was acutely aware of a separation between the local population and the people in the camps. I discovered quickly that most Nauruans had no understanding of the refugees or their past experiences. I was deeply concerned that church groups on the island and those travelling from Australia rarely took an interest in the detainees. Resentment among Nauruans was widespread, particularly when food was being given to refugees while many Nauruans were going hungry. The refugees were tolerated only because of the cash they represented.
Such was the level of dislike for the outsiders that an IOM Nauru medical report from 2002 noted: “Many doctors from the local hospital staff showed reluctance in attending to the needs of the migrants that were referred to the hospital. This has been the subject of an ongoing discussion in our public health liaison with the RON.”
If an asylum seeker or refugee breached the conditions of their visa in Nauru, if they wandered into an off-limits area or argued with authorities, they could be jailed. One man tells me “if anyone does any mistake” he is sent to jail for seven days or eight days “without clothes, and mosquito ... and if you want to do shit they told them to do shit in same place ... it was terrible, we are refugee, we are not criminals”.
Being assessed as a refugee in Nauru was no guarantee of freedom. In June 2002, when more than 100 people who had been found to be in need of protection were still detained, UNHCR's Marissa Bandharangshi said: “We have been particularly disturbed by the fact that these are people who now, despite having been recognised as refugees are still in detention.” Others who were initially rejected languished for years until they became suicidal.
The Nauru parliament is currently deadlocked and unable to govern itself but the current caretaker administration is so eager for a deal on refugees that Stephen says he is willing to consider signing the refugee convention. But Nauru was not prepared to do this during the six and a half years it held people under the Pacific Solution and this alone would not guarantee a change in attitude. The other country involved in John Howard's Pacific Solution, Papua New Guinea, was a signatory to the refugee convention but the problems were still significant.
I understand the financial difficulties faced by Nauru and for many years I offered my support and empathy for a country that was reluctant to let go of the income generated from a deal that had been struck by the late President Rene Harris in 2001. But Nauru will receive $26.6 million in Official Development Assistance from Australia in 2010-11, much more than before the Pacific Solution, and if Nauru wants to retain its independence as a nation state it cannot be built at the expense of vulnerable and already traumatised people.
Holding refugees in Nauru was designed as a punitive measure by the Howard government and it lingers as a dark era from which many are still recovering.
Australia's involvement in implementing a future regional solution for refugees must focus on solutions for refugees who have little chance of ever finding a resettlement place. According to UNHCR, only 10 of every 100 refugees in need of resettlement are now resettled every year. This is the problem in need of a solution, it is why many refugees get on boats, and any notion of returning to our past treatment of refugees in Nauru and Papua New Guinea must be taken off the table by both major parties in Australia.
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