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The Other Refugee Crisis: Nauru and the “Pacific Solution”

With the eyes of the world trained on the Syrian conflict and its fallout, another refugee crisis has gone relatively unnoticed. Thousands of refugees and asylum seekers from Southeast Asia and Africa have been making their way to Australia, attracted by the promise of peace and stability down under. Conflicts and political repression in Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have forced dissidents and other persecuted groups to flee. Relying on the regional human trafficking industry, these refugees risk their lives on rickety boats and cross dangerous waters for weeks on end to find safety. Unfortunately, their reception in Australia leaves much to be desired.

Australia has been heavily criticized for its draconian immigration policies. Under former Prime Minister John Howard, the nation introduced the now-infamous Pacific Solution, a policy of diverting asylum seekers to detention centers on nearby Pacific islands. These asylum seekers are housed on these islands for months at a time as they await processing and eventual release. Among these offshore detention centers set up by Australia, the center on Nauru has become notorious for its appalling living conditions and a host of human rights violations. When it comes to human rights, the Pacific Solution has exacerbated rather than resolved the refugee crisis in the region.

The current refugee and human rights crisis on Nauru has its roots in the nation’s tumultuous past. With an area of just eight square miles and a population of approximately 10,000, Nauru is one of the smallest nations in the world. Far from a typical Pacific paradise, the island has a troubled history of exploitation and poor governance, which has transformed the once picturesque isle into a wasteland.

When phosphate, an in-demand fertilizer and ingredient for explosives, was found under the island, Nauru experienced a brief period of prosperity. During the 1980s, it became the world’s richest country based on income per capita. However, the nation became a textbook example of the resource curse, as the sudden affluence was detrimental to its long-term social development. Decades later, the Nauruan government has embraced a sedentary lifestyle, employing 95 percent of the labor force and eliminating taxes altogether. As a result of widespread obesity and other prevalent health issues, the country has extremely high rates of chronic disease and a comparatively low life expectancy. Beyond health issues, the government has failed to provide basic services; at the turn of the millennium, only one-third of citizens went to secondary school.

What economic prosperity the country did experience diminished quickly. In the early 2000s, the country’s status as a tax haven for the Russian mafia and other criminal groups was threatened by the G7, which identified Nauru as one of fifteen uncooperative countries in the global fight against money laundering. Western banks quickly halted business with Nauru, causing the failure of its offshore banking industry. At the same time, the phosphate-mining industry collapsed due to dwindling phosphate reserves. From being one of the richest nations in the world, Nauru transformed into a poverty-ridden country with few prospects for growth.

The collapse of Nauru’s key industries left the country in a vulnerable position. With phosphate reserves drained, Nauru had no other natural resources to export and had little human capital; after years of living in affluence and with the promise of stable government jobs, the average education level was well below par. As a result, the nation became heavily dependent on foreign aid, chiefly from Australia, which contributes over $17 million a year for infrastructure and social projects. The influx of aid is important for Nauru’s development, but it also makes the island state reliant on its larger neighbor. With Nauru’s economy dependent on Australian aid, the Australian government was able to persuade Nauru to become a hub for Australian refugees and asylum seekers. The establishment of an Australian processing center was also seen as a way to salvage the country’s ravaged economy and bring in more jobs. The center is now the second largest employer in the island, behind the government.

The Nauru Regional Processing Center opened in 2001 and houses 655 asylum seekers, who constitute roughly 6.5 percent of the island’s population. Since it was established, the camp has accommodated over 25,588 asylum seekers waiting to be processed. On average, asylum seekers are detained for over nine months, with little freedom of movement. The restricted movement is a breach of international law, in direct violation of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. The processing of refugees is also usually prolonged by governmental bureaucracy and inefficiency.

In addition to the unnecessary and excessive processing period for asylum seekers, the camp has been singled out as substandard and inhumane by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The refugees are forced to live in cramped conditions with little air circulation, a major problem in the tropics. The entire center faces a water shortage; at times, showers are restricted to 30 seconds per person, aggravating the camp’s sanitation problems. These conditions have resulted in a series of health issues. Both the Australian and Nauruan governments have failed to provide adequate healthcare for asylum seekers: International Health and Medical Services, the company employed by the Australian government to provide healthcare in the detention center, has been accused of misrepresenting their work and failing to meet medical targets.

A more serious violation of international human rights is the disastrous situation of children in the camp. The Nauru detention center currently houses over 80 children, many of whom are separated from their families. These children have undergone considerable distress and often need adult guidance or psychological support. In fact, it is reported that many of them are under suicide- or self-harm-watch.

Meanwhile, the camp has failed to ensure that young refugees do not face further violence. An independent review found evidence of widespread rape and abuse of minors. There have been 67 child abuse allegations in the camp, 30 of which were against center staff themselves. Several of these assaults have taken place in the view of center staff, but little to no action has been taken against perpetrators. Other women have reported being bribed by staff with extra shower time or marijuana for sexual favors. The Nauru government has not prosecuted any of the staff accused of assault, although some have been dismissed. Caz Coleman, an advisor to the Australian government on asylum seeker policy, argues that these survivors may “never get justice” due to incompetent criminal investigations and a weak judicial framework.

The problems in the Nauru detention center run deep, but as media coverage of Nauru and the detention center increases, more and more politicians and human rights watchdogs are calling for the governments of Australia and Nauru to revamp the structure of the camp. Although their calls for restructuring are well-intentioned, they may be misguided; the flaws of the center run too deep to be resolved by a mere structural overhaul. The island of Nauru simply lacks the resources to ameliorate the situation in the detention center. With little foundation for education and an ineffective government undergoing its own crises, there is little that can be done to bring the detention center up to par with human rights and health standards.

With scant hope for improvement in Nauru, attention must turn to Australia’s immigration policies. It is neither effective nor moral for them to send thousands of desperate asylum seekers to offshore processing centers, especially when the conditions in these centers are so horrendous. With the Pacific Solution, Australia has attempted to shift responsibility for these refugees to other nations that utterly lack the resources or capability to ensure their safety and well-being. For the sake of the 655 asylum seekers on Nauru, this has to change immediately.

Despite this bleak appearance, there is some hope for the future. Last month, an Australian high court heard a challenge to the entire policy of offshore detention, signaling a subtle shift in public perception towards the policy. Days later, Nauru announced it was in the midst of processing the claims of all 655 asylum seekers, a watershed moment that may hint at a reversal in policy on behalf of both governments. Only time will tell if asylum seekers are eventually offered a better alternative or will continue to live shadow lives on the fringes of Pacific society.


About the Author

Mili Mitra '18 is an International Relations concentrator and a senior staff writer for BPR.