Our Nauru Amnesia


The federal parliamentary proposal to send asylum seekers arriving by boat to Malaysia and Nauru was framed by its proponents as the only rational option for those who cared about saving lives. To help break through this self-willed act of amnesia and bring the Pacific Solution and detention on Nauru back into focus, Wendy Bacon prepared this timeline for New Matilda.

Part One: 2001-2003


Keating Labor government introduces mandatory detention for all foreigners arriving in Australia without a visa, with Coalition support.


August 27
Howard government develops the "Pacific Solution" after the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa reaches Christmas Island carrying 400 mainly Afghan asylum seekers it had rescued on board. Prime minister John Howard refuses to let the group enter Australia. Most of those rescued will later be taken to the tiny 21 square kilometres Pacific island nation of Nauru, 4500 kilometres from Australia.

Howard’s policy is summed up by his statement: "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come".

August 29
The Howard government introduces the Border Protection Bill 2001 which gives it the power to use reasonable force to remove any ship from Australian territorial waters; forcibly return any person to such a ship; and guarantee that no asylum application may be made by anyone on board.

The purpose of the act is to make the government’s actions against the MV Tampa legal and to allow Australia to refuse entry to asylum seekers. It is part of a package of new laws which, in relation to asylum seekers, excise island territories from Australia.

September 10
A statement of principles is signed by President of Nauru, Rene Harris, and the then Australian minister for defence, Peter Reith, providing for a detention centre for up to 800 people. The Australian government pledges $20 million for development activities in Nauru. The initial intake includes asylum seekers rescued by the MV Tampa. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is contracted to run the detention centre and in turn, it subcontracts to firms such as Chubb Security.

September 19
The Border Protection package becomes law after some minor changes by Labor, led by Kim Beazley. The Australian Greens and the Australian Democrats oppose the Pacific Solution and all mandatory detention.

October 7
SIEV (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel) 4, a fishing boat carrying 223 asylum seekers is intercepted by Australian Navy ship HMAS Adelaide north of Christmas Island.

The Federal election is announced.

October 8
Immigration minister Philip Ruddock announces that passengers on SIEV 4 threatened to throw children overboard. This claim is repeated by other government ministers including prime minister Howard and defence minister Reith. The claim is later shown to be false.

October 10
HMAS Adelaide’s Commander Banks reported to his superiors that no children were thrown into the water.

October 19
SIEV-X sinks in international waters but inside Australia’s surveillance zone while en route from Indonesia — 353 people, including 146 children, die in the water.

October 21
Following agreement with the Papua and New Guinea government, a detention centre is opened on Manus Island.

In a later interview (p.47) with the Edmund Rice cCntre, an Iraqi survivor removed from the Tampa to Australian Navy boat Manoora reveals the conditions under which she and others were taken to Nauru:

"We refused to land in Nauru and were kept on the boat for one month in a room large enough for 100 and we were 350. We could not breathe; there was not enough room and the toilet facilities were terrible, terrible."

In early November, Dr John Pace visits Nauru and reports back to Amnesty International that asylum seekers showed "symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including nervousness, anxiety, an aggressive attitude, muteness, distrust, withdrawal, and lack of focus and concentration." These symptoms affected their participation in eligibility process. He finds that detainees are housed in corrugated iron huts, plastic sheeting and shade cloth, with dirt floors; huts infested with mosquitos and with little protection from heat. Conditions are harsh. While there are basic health facilities, there is insufficient psychological care.

November 8
Howard addresses the National Press Club, again claiming asylum seekers threw children into the water.

November 10
Howard wins the election. It is widely agreed that his "border protection policy" played a significant role in the campaign and that Labor had been wedged into supporting the policy. The Coalition look like strong leaders while Labor loses support to the Greens and Democrats. (More on this issue can be found in Peter Mares’ book, Borderline.)

December 11
A further agreement is signed with Nauru, boosting refugee numbers to 1200 with an additional $10 million promised. Two camps are opened: one at an old sports ground and oval and another at Nauru’s old presidential quarters.

The detainees later tell the BBC that they were initially told they would only be on the island for a few weeks while their claims were processed.


January 8
The United Nations refugee agency states that it expects most of those sent to Nauru will be found to be refugees. Immigration minister Philip Ruddock says it is wrong to make predictions.

Labor, now under the leadership of Simon Crean, is reported to be softening its attitude towards mandatory detention and the Pacific solution.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Greg Roberts poses as a tourist to get access to Manus island, and reports suicide attempts, breakouts and hunger strikes by asylum seekers, as well as widespread, potentially fatal diseases, including malaria, typhoid fever and tuberculosis.

Early February
Immigration minister Ruddock and Opposition counterpart Julia Gillard visit Manus Island and Nauru. Journalists are refused seats on the plane to Nauru. When they try to travel on commercial flights, the Nauru government refuses them visas. Detainees on Nauru including children protest, chanting "freedom, freedom".

Asked by Kerry O’Brien on ABC TV on her return about centre conditions, Gillard answers: "The conditions aren’t what you or I would aspire to, but I do understand that by the conditions of refugee centres around the world, that they are, you know, adequate conditions, not bad conditions."

February 13
The Senate establishes a Select Committee into A Certain Maritime Incident (Children Overboard Affair) which includes an inquiry into the "Pacific Solution" and its operation and cost.

March 22
in a submission to the Select Committee, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights argue that the Pacific Solution is incompatible with Australia’s obligations under international law, lacks transparency and provides insufficient access to refugees. Journalists, NGOs and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission should be allowed access to the centres, they say.

April 17
ABC Foreign Correspondent reporter Evan Williams broadcasts secretly filmed footage of Manus detention centre and conducts an interview with a senior PNG politician who says the PNG government was "strongarmed" into opening the centre.

There are now 1155 people detained in Nauru including 30 children.

The government announces that the 2002-03 Budget would "focus on removing some of the ‘push factors’ from source countries," with $5.8 million provided over three years in assistance for Afghan asylum seekers who volunteered to return to Afghanistan.

Refugee activist Kate Durham and founder of Spare Rooms for Refugees enters Nauru "undercover" with BBC journalist Sarah McDonald and obtains the first images. "The conditions were disgusting, absolutely and utterly disgusting," Durham was quoted as saying.

"I walked around a shanty city … it felt terrible; it was hot, it was airless, it was sickeningly disease-ridden."

Jim Carty visits for the Marist Refugee office and reports that Australians "will look back on this policy of the Pacific Solution with shame and regret. We will recognise it for what it is: a xenophobic fear-ridden reaction, well served by obscene political opportunism in keeping with the now discredited White Australia Policy."

September 22
BBC correspondent’s Sarah McDonald’s highly critical report is broadcast in the UK.

October 23
The majority report of the Senate Inquiry into "A Certain Maritime Incident" is tabled by its Chairman, Labor senator Peter Cook. The report finds that the minister for defence Peter Reith deliberately misled the public in the children overboard affair. The Committee finds the Pacific Solution has projected a negative image of Australia in the region.

Although the Committee does not find the solution to be in breach of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, it notes concerns in relation to the International Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, particularly in relation to people being held in detention after they have been found to be refugees. It is concerned about the lack of transparency in the application process. Less than 400 of 701 Tampa refugees have been resettled, and 81 people have not been given a decision. Hundreds found to be refugees have been refused entry to Australia and remain in detention indefinitely which is a breach of Article 26 and 31(2) of the Refugee Convention. Australia is still responsible for finding a solution for these people.

The dissenting Liberal senators slam the report as an undignified sideshow.

December 4
Labor announces its new policy which is opposed to the detention in Nauru or PNG but supports excising Christmas Island and turning back boats. Labor MP Carmen Lawrence quits the shadow front bench in protest against the harshness of the policy. The Greens and Democrats oppose the Christmas Island proposal as well as the "Pacific Solution".

December 15
Approximately 230 asylum seekers have agreed to return to Afghanistan but on arrival some wave placards complaining about Nauru detention conditions. The Herald Sun quotes Najibullah, 19, as saying he left Afghanistan fearing for his life under the former Taliban regime."Then armed people came and forced us to go to Nauru where we were kept in prison conditions for one and a half years. These people say they obey human rights, but the way they treat people, it is clear they do not… Conditions were terrible in the camp, there was not enough food or water." Others tell Edmund Rice Centre researchers that they were told by UN translators and IOM staff that they must return to Afghanistan because it is Australia’s policy to send refugees back. (p.48 Deported to Danger).

December 16
A UN working group inquiry into Australia’s detention centres, including Nauru, criticises the length of incarceration, treatment of children and access to legal advice for asylum seekers. The report recommends detention be limited to a specific period after which asylum seekers are released, providing a person guarantees their behaviour. It says detention conditions cause problems such as hunger strikes, night terrors, bed wetting and, in serious cases, self-mutilation and suicide attempts. The Australian government accused the UN group of making errors in the report.

December 20
According to a report, Soldiers, Sailors and Asylum Seekers, co-authored by human rights lawyer Julian Burnside, asylum seekers on Nauru and Christmas Island were being tortured and treated in an inhuman, cruel and degrading way. "…if the government is not prepared to investigate these claims seriously, I would take that as an admission that they’re true," Burnside writes. He calls for a senate or judicial inquiry. Labor MP Carmen Lawrence launches the report, saying "these are circumstances where people are held indefinitely, in many cases without hope, and without any review of their conditions. …lack of hope and the brutality, both physical and psychological, produces devastating consequences on human beings."

December 24
A "riot" occurrs at the Nauru detention centre. Later this is reported to have been started by women who are on temporary protection visas in Australia, and have been separated from their husbands and denied refugee status.

December 27
A "stand-off" occurs between officials and detainees on Manus Island, where there are 100 detainees.


January 17
150 refugees from Manus Island and Nauru are accepted by New Zealand, some from the Tampa.

January 29
SBS’s Dateline and Sydney Morning Herald report that following the Christmas eve protest, asylum seekers on Nauru say they have no running water and are living on one meal a day. There are allegations that children are threatening suicide. In the Dateline program, a Nauruan policeman alleges that Australian Protective Service (APS) officers leave food and water at the front gate. Guards and asylum seekers threw rocks at each other during the Christmas Eve "riot". The APS says it has no evidence to support the claims.

Asked about the situation on Nauru, a spokesman for the immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, says "logic was sadly lacking in [asylum seekers]saying ‘we want full services, but we will threaten you if you come in and try to provide it’". (The visa loophole which allowed Dateline to enter Nauru is subsequently closed.)

August 7
The Democrats’ leader, senator Andrew Bartlett, visits Nauru. He says he is shocked at the conditions. "The policy seems to be aimed at grinding down the will of the detainees until they give up and go home," he says.

"So many children, young children, three, four, five years old, gathered at the gate. All of them kept in camps since 2001. The inescapable question arises again. How can this be that the Australian taxpayer funds the deliberate imprisonment of children?" he writes.

August 26
Nauru bans lawyers, human rights activists, health care professionals and independent observers. Amnesty International issues a global alert about the deteriorating human rights situation on Nauru.

December 11
There are now 284 people in detention on Nauru including 93 children. Nine detainees, four of whom sew their lips together, start a hunger strike. More join the protest during the week.

December 12
Nine hunger strikers are reported to be slipping in and out of consciousness after three days without water. The hunger strikers tell supporters that if they die, there are more who will take their place. "This peaceful protest will go on. We have no choice left. There is freedom or death," they said in an email.

December 13
The ABC reports that more detainees have joined the hunger strike. The government says if detainees do not agree to return to Afghanistan voluntarily, it could deport them. "These people should be under no illusions that by taking these actions they will influence the Australian government to provide them with entry to Australia," an immigration department spokesman says.

December 14
A Just Australia complains that no media have legally challenged the refusal of the Nauru and Australian governments to allow journalists to do first hand reporting on the Pacific Solution. SBS Dateline are the only team to have got in. It pleads with the media to hold the government accountable:

"Independent monitoring of the plight of these people has not occurred. There are no pictures in the newspapers or on TV, no stories of the effect of this stalemate on the children on Nauru."

December 15
7 hunger strikers are hospitalised.

The Australian Greens call for offshore detention centres to be closed immediately. "It (Nauru) is a despairing camp more akin to a penal colony in Australia 200 years ago than to the sort of Australia we respect ourselves for running in the year 2003 … Growing fears of serious injuries to those in detention in Nauru, or even fatalities, cannot go unheard," Greens leader Bob Brown says.

Labor says "Nauru should be closed as soon as possible… The Pacific Solution should end, and the best way for that to happen is for the government to stand up today and say ‘Yes, we will end Nauru…’" shadow minister for immigration Stephen Smith says the government is not keeping him informed about the situation. He calls for mediators to be sent in.

The Age says the dire situation on Nauru exposes the failure of the government to appoint an independent watchdog of the Pacific Solution. The Human Rights Commission should be allowed to oversight Nauru. The Age criticises the government for rejecting the UNHRC’s advice that it is not safe to return asylum seekers to Afghanistan. Some refused applications should be reconsidered.

December 16
Almost 300 asylum seekers detained on Nauru launch legal action against the federal government, claiming they are being falsely imprisoned. Melbourne solicitor Solicitor Eric Vadarlis says some asylum seekers being held on the island were near death. "I must say that if these people die then I think Mr Howard will have blood on his hands," Vadarlis says.

As the strikers enter their seventh day, Rural Australians for Refugees spokeswoman Elaine Smith warns someone will die soon. Strikers are reported to be urinating blood.

Stephen Smith said the situation warrants bringing in the federal Immigration Detention Advisory Group to negotiate an end to the strike.

December 17
Immigration minister Senator Vanstone says hunger strikers are not the government’s problem. "It’s not in Australian territory, it’s on Nauru, and being run by other people. If someone doesn’t want to be there, they can go home. Nobody likes to see people who are feeling that they have to take what appear to be drastic measures in order to protest, but people will do what they want to do."

On behalf of Nauru detainees, human rights lawyers seek a court declaration that the they are being held illegally. Julian Burnside QC accuses the government of trying to force the detainees back to Iraq and Afghanistan. "Some prefer the conditions on Nauru (that amount to) a slow death rather than a more rapid death if they go back," he said. The federal government’s lawyer argues the asylum seekers were under the jurisdiction of Nauru and not Australia.

December 18
The IOM claims refugees are involving children in the strike and John Howard orders an investigation.

December 19
Australian Catholic bishops ask the federal government to immediately bring all asylum seekers on Nauru to Australia: "We call on the Australian government to recognise the complementary protection needs of those Afghans on Nauru who are from districts that are not yet safe…"

December 19
UNHCR says it is concerned for "hundreds of people — mostly Afghans and Iraqis and including more than 90 children — who continue to be detained on the isolated Pacific Island of Nauru, some of them for more than two years".

It says that those who don’t qualify as refugees but can’t for security reasons be transferred to their countries of origin, should be treated humanely while a solution is found which does not involve continued detention in harsh conditions. It describes the hunger strike as "symptomatic of a general degree of despair that must be addressed with a view to responding humanely to what is becoming a human tragedy".

December 20
The federal government finally responds to the hunger strike by announcing former immigration minister John Hodges and Afghan community leader Ghulam Aboss will visit the island.

December 22
Afghanistan’s ambassador to Australia Mahmoud Saikai splits with the federal government over the plight of failed asylum seekers in Nauru, urging them to be brought to Australia. "We need time and Australia could help us by, somehow, if our nationals were allowed to remain in Australia; that would have been helpful to us," he says.

December 24
New Zealand, which has already taken 131 Tampa asylum seekers, is considering accepting some of remaining 284 asylum seekers on Nauru. There are now 41 hunger strikers.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says it began reviewing 46 detainees’ claims several months ago given deterioration of situation in Afghanistan. It urges Australia to do the same for all Afghans on Nauru who have been refused refugee status.

December 27
A Just Australia puts forward a proposal by which hunger strikers would end their strike if Australian and New Zealand governments agree to meet on Nauru in the new year to negotiate a solution drafted by the Hazara ethnic society. Immigration minister Amanda Vanstone criticises the proposal for giving strikers "false hope".

December 29
ACTU president Sharan Burrow and Howard Glenn, A Just Australia director, write to New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark urging her to intervene in the strike.

"We know that this is an unfair request, but we are desperate to save these lives," they plead.

New Matilda will publish Part Two: 2004—2008 tomorrow.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.