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Australia's human dumping ground Nauru


Crumpled ball of paper falls onto pileWelcome to Nauru. Land area: 21 square kilometres, the world's smallest republic. Permanent population: around 10,000. Temporary population: name any figure — or, better still, don't name one. Chief natural resource: bird droppings (until it was exhausted in fertilising Australia). Chief economic activity: human dumping ground.

Nauru has joined Papua New Guinea in the Cohort of the Willing — willing, that is, to take dollops of Australian money to hide away an Australian problem. Substitute 'asylum seekers' for 'convicts', and it recalls the way Australia was used by Great Britain in the 18th century to dispose of a British problem. The distinction between convict and asylum seeker is largely semantic since some of the money changing hands will be used to build a new prison on the island.

Nauru supported a native population for three thousand years. The British sea captain who first sighted it in 1798 named it Pleasant Island. Then came the phosphate miners who, within a century, had carted away all the usable guano and left 80 per cent of Pleasant Island scarred and barren. In recent years, the country has resorted to other means to generate income, including selling passports, offering a tax haven and facilitating money laundering. (Nauru, along with Kiribati and Tuvalu, uses the Australian dollar as its official currency.)

After serving variously as a watering hole for British whalers, a Germany colony, a UN-mandated territory under Australian administration and a Japanese air base during the war, Nauru's mainly Micronesian population gained their independence in 1968. A trust fund was set up to receive a share of earnings from phosphate mining, as an insurance policy for the future, only to have most of the money lost through bad investment decisions. Over the past decade, fund assets have been sold off to meet current expenditures.

Today, more than ever, Nauru depends for its existence on Australia, and specifically the detention business. Any form of bilateral negotiation must be compromised by this dependency. The $30 million dollars it is due to receive under the latest refugee diversion scheme is equivalent to nearly 50 per cent of GDP (already inflated by previous 'Pacific Solution' money). Australia also supplies Nauru's defence needs, its court of last appeal for criminal cases (the High Court of Australia) and its most popular sporting pastime (Australian Rules football).

But according to data published by the UN, social indictors for Nauru are in stark contrast to Australia's (figures in brackets). Population below the age of 15: 35 per cent (19 per cent); male life expectancy: 55 years (80); infant mortality: 46 per 1000 live births (five); gross school enrolment per 100 persons: 74 for males and 83 for females (115/118). Nauru's rates of obesity and type-2 diabetes are the highest in the world. Nauru has had 22 changes of administration in the past 24 years, with the current president elected to office just three months ago. 

The vulnerable nation has many legitimate needs; turning it into a place of exile for hundreds, potentially thousands, is a shameful quid pro quo for development aid. In the words of Amnesty International, Australia has created 'a toxic mix of uncertainty, unlawful detention and inhumane conditions'. The notion that the tiny island offers a suitable home for the permanent resettlement for any significant number of refugees — one provision of the new deal — is risible. Such a flawed arrangement must inevitably produce compounding problems. 

The 129 asylum seekers charged following the riot and arson last month have swamped the Nauruan judicial system. The two Australian lawyers available to offer the accused pro bono assistance cannot cope with the workload. Bail hearings are being conducted in batches of ten. Having supposedly handed over the problem to this sovereign nation to deal with under its own laws, calls are now going out for more Australian aid to ensure the accused can receive a fair trial.

The false dichotomy used to justify this policy — indefinite detention is preferable to drowning at sea, the 'lesser of two evils' logic — needs to be exposed for what it is. The belated concern being expressed over loss of life does not ring true. After all, the SIEV-X tragedy, the worst known sinking, in which 353 drowned, happened as long ago as October 2001. Setting the bar for a 'solution' just above the threshold of death has a chilling precedent in the ghettos, gulags and concentration camps of other days, other places.

Australia is surrounded by a host of under-developed states reliant upon foreign aid; their vulnerability is due, in part, to a defunct colonial structure from which Australia once profited. To make our response to the humanitarian needs of Papua New Guinea and Nauru conditional on their playing a quasi-colonial role as a refugee staging ground or place of final resettlement is to convey an image of Australians as a patronising people who do not hesitate to wash their dirty linen in their neighbour's stream.


Walter Hamilton headshotWalter Hamilton is a former ABC foreign correspondent and author of Children of the Occupation: Japan's Untold Story.

Topic tags: Walter Hamilton, Nauru, asylum seekers, refugees, SIEV-X



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Existing comments

Well said Walter.

Jim Jones | 07 August 2013  

Negotiation of an arrangement which includes resettlement of refugees in Nauru is the height of political cynicism. Not only does it condemn the resettled refugees to a life of extremely limited opportunity - akin to detention - but it also ensures a massive upheaval in the lives of the Nauruans themselves. And the reason for this? Just to convince the Australian electorate that Kevin Rudd is a better leader than Julia Gillard!

Ian Fraser | 07 August 2013  

Nauru - and PNG - may yet one day come back to haunt Australia as blackmailing demands for ever more funding for infrastructure for ever more burgeoning populations of refugees until the economies of all three will be threatened with destabilisation because of the iron law of unintended consequences and diminishing returns. That day may come sooner than we think.

walter p komarnicki | 07 August 2013  

Don't think mr.Abbott is any better.

irena mangone | 07 August 2013  

I would invite any supporter of the PNG- Pacific "solution" to write an essay in response to this, arguing the moral (not expedient) case for why this strategy is wise or defensible or sustainable. Walter, thank-you for this article. I don't pretend to know the solution to this complex problem, but it is patently clear that THIS IS NOT IT!

David Busch | 07 August 2013  

Thank you Walter. I am disgusted that fellow Australians can be so cruel - power has corrupted morality - vast amounts of money going to enable a party to cling onto power instead of being directed to UNHCR and the sources of desperate human beings. This country can well sustain and benefit from people in dire need.

Margot Meldrum | 07 August 2013  

Far too extreme. The Irish convicts were whipped and tortured and sometimes executed by the English in Australia. You should read your history books.

angela | 07 August 2013  

Thankyou Walter. It's always valuable to read your point of view.

Caroline Jones | 07 August 2013  

Well done. I think the analogy to the decision to establish a British convict settlement in Australia, taken in those days to both relieve a domestic problem emanating from unjust social conditions and linked to a choice of foreign policy to project British power in the Pacific Ocean is a great fit to the present Australian government decision to attempt to manage a domestic political problem linked to a projection of Australia influence in the Pacific. And it's wrong and unjust as well as being poor policy on both fronts.

Mike Bowden | 07 August 2013  

It's embarrassing in the extreme but at least the Solomon's and Fiji laugh at the lunacy of punishing victims of genocide and torture in this way.

Marilyn | 07 August 2013  

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/07/refugee-camp-australia-dadaab Remember how we pretend we must torture refugees who come by sea so we can save people in the refugee camps? This article is pretty much what the world thinks or racist Australia. Why are the two major parties so obsessed with turning away people they know very well are refugees? I't's only so they can pretend we can limit visas to 20,000.

Marilyn | 08 August 2013  

Thank you for spelling out the reality Walter, a reality we don't still get or want to know it seems.Your analogy with convicts being dumped is so fitting.I would like add my question about Australian governments allowing foreign investment to swallow up land ,resources and infrastructure and why is it so important to 'protect our borders' from real human desperation; refugees on leaky boats, people willing to work and contribute to our economy??? There will soon be no sovereign "Australia" left and we will have little control of our wealth.There is an open border rule to big money it seems,and this surely is a far greater threat to our way of life.

catherine | 08 August 2013  

Tell us something new please. Australia and Australians have been exploiting Nauru for eons. Even your story is an exploit on Nauru..

duggob | 08 August 2013  

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