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Nauru solution a dodgy deal

Marcus StephenWhile 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.

Susan MetcalfeSusan Metcalfe is a writer and refugee advocate who made many visits to the detention centres in Nauru. She has recently completed a book on the Howard Government's Pacific Solution to be published in August.

Topic tags: Nauru, caretaker president, Marcus Stephen, pacific solution, east timor, julia gillard, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

And you thing that East Timor is all altruism ? Hardly a place to use as an Australian waiting room.

philip | 15 July 2010  

This is bizarre. East Timor is the issue not Nauru. Julia Gillard is trying to foist an offshore processing centre for asylum seekers in East Timor. Why not criticise this plan which Gillard says is 'in process'. The East Timorese do not want it - how many times do they have to say it. Who listens to what they are saying? Why write about Nauru when East Timor is the real issue and the East Timorese the victims of a hastily concocted plan by Labor which was insensitive to say the least?

Skye | 15 July 2010  

The Naurians who worked in the processing centre on Nauru are most distressed and stung by the unfair criticism of their hard work in the centre. Seems that there is a spin operation going on by sectors of the Australian press to smear Nauru when the people there worked hard and did their best. A bit or media paternalism from the West??

Read the Nauruan view

Skye | 15 July 2010  

Skye, the Nauruans were only reluctantly given the lowest jobs in the camps because they often didn't turn up for work! Most of the workers were international staff. You have given a link to a story that shows a picture of a few Nauruans when they worked in the camp - the comments in the story are from the president. A regional solution is not about Nauru which has had plenty of our money already! And many Nauruans don't want it again.

Gregory Marshall | 15 July 2010  

The Naurians who worked in the processing centre on Nauru are most distressed and stung by the unfair criticism of their hard work in the centre. Seems that there is a spin operation going on by sectors of the Australian press to smear Nauru when the people there worked hard and did their best. A bit or media paternalism from the West??

Read the Nauruan view

Skye | 15 July 2010  

1. It's always going to be about the money. Or rather - if there isn't a money angle, it ain't gonna happen.

2. East Timorese or peoples of similar economic status would likely be as unsympathetic to the plight of refugees, and resent a lifestyle in the camps higher in several respects than their own. Or is it that Nauruans particularly self-centred?

3. "Punitive measure" - no editorialising there, eh?

4. Can someone who demonises the Howard government's Pacific solution PLEASE put up their own practical solution to the issue? One that is "humane" according to their own lights, but also one that will not open the floodgates, a la Rudd? To the extent that they refuse to do so, their lofty sounding appeals are just "slogans", as someone put it recently.

HH | 15 July 2010  

Yes Skye I have heard that as well. No wonder the Gillard govt. won't even talk about Nauru when they spun so hard to discredit it during the Howard years.

In any case, as I've said before, the compassionate response is to stop the people smugglers from cramming desperate people onto leaky unseaworthy boats. Once the message gets out that Nauru is where they'll end up, the smugglers will lose their "market". How else are we going to stop them?

Maybe a better solution would be to advertise the legitimate channels for migration? I have seen 20 minute "infomercials" on Malaysian and Indonesian TV promoting migration to Australia that definitely didn't look legitimate! One wonders who's behind these.

ian | 15 July 2010  

Last week I had a conversation with a former member of the Communist Party of Australia. He left because of the Soviet suppression of the Czech Velvet Revolution. He has maintained his belief in the brotherhood of man; his contempt for the exploitative nature of modern Capitalism; and, regrettably for me, his cynicism about party politics in a democracy.

I asked him for his views on the current debate about refugees.
"What we should be doing," he said, "is piling as many Immigration selection officers as we can into refugee camps in those areas (Sri Lanka, Afghanistan etc)in our area of interest. Make it abundantly clear to the world that we want to help refugees who are willing to be processed through cooperation with UNHCR. That should spike the guns of the people smugglers.

But we won't. Both sides of politics will try to pander to bleeding hearts on the one hand and xenophobes of all descriptions on the other. It is all a matter of votes, of numbers. I gave up materialist determinism because I saw the courage of the human spirit shown by the Czechs in 1968. There's not much courage being shown by our political leaders today."

Uncle Pat | 15 July 2010  

I think the Government and opposition are working hard to find a good solution to the people smuggling and border security problem. Groups of so-called “human rights activists” and others continue to oppose attempts to slow the trade in human misery.
They are not worried about how many people die trying to use the service of people smugglers. They continue beating their chest in a frenzy of self-rightness and fail to care about the welfare of refugees. They hope that the perception of the current open door policy remains and that the current income stream from people smuggling continues to flow.
The Government is correct in trying to find ways of reducing the attractiveness of people smuggling. In the end only policies, which appear to deter such a trade will save lives and enhance the security of our borders.

Beat Odermatt | 15 July 2010  

Gregory: Of those holding the 'lowest jobs in the camp', I can recall three camp managers: one, the Hon. Mathew Batsiua, MP and Minister for Health and Justice. Two, Chitra Jeremiah, who is now the Consul-General to Australia and Barina Waqa, who is a legal counsel in the Dept of Justice. Others include my father, who had the 'lowly' role of teaching English to many, many refugees in the camp. I do, however, admit that the pay was rubbish.

On your other claim, Nauru has had plenty or 'our' money already - rubbish. Any money paid since in alleged aid (in fact, paid to HK shipping and various australian public servants) is a pittance in comparison to the estimated 2 billion that was stolen under Australia's 'trusteeship'. Don't think that any money given to Nauru since 1967 isn't owed to it.

@Susan, you know i don't like it and there are plenty of other Nauruans who don't like it. H.E. is my MP and my family have written to him asking him to reconsider.

Xavier Barker | 15 July 2010  

billions were spent for a solution - if desired, that solution can be modified to suit.

a solution is now needed - the concerned people should cry loud how a solution should be; at the same time, should also consider how that going to work.

not giving a solution will hurt Australia's image as much as a bad solution does.

AZURE | 15 July 2010  

The law of this country says that to apply for asylum in this country people have to be in this country.

Instead of this constant whining about an average of 9 people per day asking for such help we should stop locking them up and just assess their damn claims quickly and honestly as we promised to do when we helped to write the refugee convention, ratified it and enshrined it into the Migration Act.

Gillard's plan has always been to use our old standby from 1938 which was about jewish refugees.

Our position then was "it's sad but we don't care, we don't have a racial problem and are not desirous of importing one".

WE have not changed a jot.

And Skye it is an issue because Nauru said they would do it again but only for the cash.

Marilyn Shepherd | 15 July 2010  

Solution to what? Out of 5 million visas last year only a few thousand went to refugees.

We are talking about 9 people per day. Solution? For what? Our inherent lazy racism?

Marilyn Shepherd | 15 July 2010  

Susan what is the book called?

Marilyn Shepherd | 15 July 2010  

Marilyn, who will not do it for cash? Name one person. I think the Nauruans want to be sure they are not ripped off by big Australia down the road. Fair payment for fair work in this respect is surely not a problem. The fairness of the process is the issue.

Skye | 15 July 2010  

For myself, I think the suggestion of the Lib/Nats that voluntary communities should be allowed to invite and look after refugees themselves has great merit. Why has there been stony silence about this idea, rather than praise, among the bleeding hearts? Is it because it's not some grand gesture, full of sound and fury,(but signifying nothing)? Is it because it's the successors to the detested John Howard that are proposing it? Is it because it relies on the decisions of individual Australians, and we're against "rugged individualism"?

A rugged individualist, I would definitely support such a project in my area. In my opinion, local voluntary communities are far more likely to form natural, personal and enduring relationships of the best kind with incoming refugees. They are also likely to have a keen sense of the capacities and limitations of their respective "absorption points" (for want of a better term).

Australians are not racist. They're generous and open. But they don't like the future of their society decided by robots in a plastic box somewhere between Sydney and Melbourne. They want to make flesh and blood decisions for themselves.

I'm up for it. So I s'pose it's got no chance. Pity.

HH | 15 July 2010  

However the money this supposed 'deal' makes, it certainly does not solve any problems or on going issues for the three concerned.

Seeking asylum is always going to be an issue. Yet this issue only arises because the certain place they come from has issues. Though the it would be good for Nauru economically, I agree with Metcalfe that in order for them to independently stand on their feet after suffering from years of political instability and financial problems, this 'pacific solution' is not the answer to the still staggering amounts of refugees still trying to seek asylum. Australia it's your problem deal with it. Shouldn't have even considered them as a possible solution. You'd only get their hopes up, and then take it all away again.

Merys | 16 July 2010  

5 million or more people come here every year, if every one of them decided they would apply for asylum they are entitled to.

Chew on that and choke.

Marilyn Shepherd | 16 July 2010  

Marilyn, if a sufficient proportion of the five million who visited here every year applied for asylum, we would in all probability review our visa criteria posthaste. This is not the planet Zog.

HH | 17 July 2010  

The Coalition ought to hang their heads in shame. How disgusting Nauru's treatment of refugees is. Is it any wonder articles such as Susan's dont make it into Abbott, Bishop, Morrisson policy conversations with the public.

Karen-Maree Kelly | 29 July 2010  

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