To this day many facts about what happened in Nauru in the early years of the Howard government’s Pacific Solution policy remain contested or obscure. Accountability to Australian taxpayers for his offshore detention centres was not one of John Howard’s priorities, and most Australians, media and NGOs were denied access to the country before 2005.
When Howard was leading our country, staffers in one minister’s office called themselves the KKK. Used in relation to asylum seekers, it meant "Keep them out, Kick them out, or Keep them in detention". I have heard this more than once from reliable sources and I have no doubt that it is true.
It was a mentality we saw in play when wives of male refugees already in Australia were incarcerated for years in Nauru. We saw it in PNG when medical advice to transfer two pregnant women and an infant, unable to take anti malarial medication, was ignored. We saw it in the long term detention of many innocent men, women and children in Australia and in Nauru, and in the forcing back of boats to Indonesia.
We don’t know how many unaccompanied minors were detained in Nauru because all available statistics are inconsistent. But we do know that unaccompanied minors were interviewed without legal representation or independent support and some were returned to Afghanistan. One 15-year-old boy wrote to a supporter in Australia:
"Please help me and help the under 18 boys, we have no one to take care of us when we were moved. When we were in Christmas Island there was a lady who took care of us but here in Nauru there is no one … when we were near Australia, near Ashmore reef, two people died and both of them were women, our boat sank."
The boys had arrived on the SIEV 10, a boat ordered to return to Indonesia in October 2001. But soon after the directive was given, a fire on board forced all 159 passengers into the water. Thirty-three children under the age of 12 were rescued that day. A young pregnant woman and a grandmother drowned.
Four unaccompanied children were among a group finally resettled from Nauru in 2004, nearly three years after their arrival. Another 25 men were evacuated to Australia in 2005, after more than four years in Nauru. The IOM psychiatrist wrote to the Australian government:
"These migrants have been suffering from their Mental Health cases for several years already and are deemed to be highly vulnerable to do self-harm if they will still continue to stay in the Offshore Processing Centre in Nauru or any similar environment…
"Their mental health situation is presently at high risk… We can only prevent the great danger the migrants are facing in harming themselves if there will be a change in their social environment that will offer them suitable self-development and improvement of life… IOM Medical cannot be held responsible for any events or circumstances that may arise as a result of such above situation."
Often unacknowledged are the thousands of Australians who wrote letters, talked to refugees in Nauru on the phone and kept them from going under. Without the commitment of those people, lives in Nauru would undoubtedly have been lost. Efforts behind the scenes were often more powerful and lasting than anything in the public domain, and it is what gives me hope that a new way forward on asylum seekers can be found today.
Chris Bowen tells us that re-opening a centre in Nauru would be an ineffective and expensive option. So why go back to a policy that won’t reduce boat arrivals, that we know causes great harm to human beings, and will come at enormous cost to the Australian taxpayer?
The Government’s answer is "compromise". Tony Abbott wants Nauru, and let’s face it, Abbott has been running the asylum seeker debate since 2010. But note well — anything the Australian Government, the Opposition or the Nauruan Government says on the subject should be taken with a Bex and a good lie down.
Returning to Nauru may not deter boat arrivals, it may be wasteful and inhumane; but it does keep asylum seekers away from independent support and out of Australia’s legal system (if both parties collude on legislation). If the Government can use Nauru as a political convenience, without owning the stench of its past or blame for future damage, all the better.
The Government didn’t blame Tony Abbott when it decided last year to reopen the centre in Papua New Guinea (the other Pacific Solution country), because it didn’t need to. The centre in PNG was in some ways worse than Nauru, but it held smaller numbers of mostly Iraqi asylum seekers and was emptied by 2004. Nauru held many more asylum seekers, for much longer periods, and it was Nauru that came to symbolise Australia’s poor treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.
Other than Tony Abbott’s cheer squad it would be hard to find anyone who believed that reopening Nauru would lead to fewer boat arrivals or save lives. We know now that a boat to Nauru still means resettlement in a shorter time than waiting in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia or Pakistan. So why wouldn’t they come?
We give our governments money to spend on good public policy, not on political convenience, or on providing a cash cow for Nauru. Nauru holds a dark place in Australia’s history and it should be taken off the policy table now.
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