Six months ago today, the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers recommended a return to offshore processing on Nauru, predicting it would act as a “circuit breaker” to stem the flow of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat.
In the first six months that followed, more asylum seekers – 10,595 – arrived by boat than in any other six month period in Australian history.
Tragically, deaths at sea have continued, with more lives lost off the coast of Indonesia. Today, the core intention of the Panel’s work – to prevent loss of life at sea – remains unresolved and the need to improve protection for asylum seekers and refugees in our region and beyond still requires urgent attention.
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In keeping with this spirit of compassion (and list-writing!), I looked back at the year this country’s refugees have had, and realised there’s probably a whole lot of things they didn’t want for Christmas:
1. A leaky tent
Nauru’s monsoon season brings with it regular flooding and scorching 40-degree heat, a severely uncomfortable mix at best.
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“Why are we here? Why don’t they just tell us why we’re here? The not knowing will kill us, the not knowing is destroying our minds.”
Nearly every man I met on Nauru asked me the same questions. This man gripped a piece of rope as he spoke. He told me that it was this rope that he had cut the night before as he pulled down his friend who had attempted to hang himself.
He sat quietly as I thought about what I could tell him. What is the answer to his question – why are these 386 men on this small Pacific island when they arrived in Australia asking for protection?
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It is the beginning of summer and the humidity is stifling. Yesterday’s rain still lingers underfoot, serving as a reminder of the dismal surrounds. The tent - a shelter if you could call it shelter at all - is a constant reminder of the misery to be found here in this forsaken place.
Rows upon rows line the grounds with some holding with up to 14 people inside. As night draws closer, so too do the storms of the rain season. The tents offer little resistance to the almost nightly torrents thrown down from above. The bedding is damp, the surrounds are bleak, and hope begins to fade. This is Nauru as Amnesty International’s Dr Graham Thom has described seeing on his recent visit. This is the Pacific Solution.
A delegation from Amnesty International has recently called on the Australian Government to rethink its Pacific Solution, describing conditions in the Nauru detention camp in no uncertain terms as “completely unacceptable”.
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Since August 13 the Government has been forced to pack almost all its asylum seeker deterrents into the rickety vessel called Off-Shore Processing. Today the Government had to acknowledge its policy craft had sunk.
Any discouragement of asylum seekers it might have carried has disappeared. In fact, the prospects for boat people look somewhat brighter. Nauru and Christmas Island have been overwhelmed by asylum seeker arrivals since August 13, and Manus Island in P-NG is only now open for business and soon will be full.
So Immigration Minister Chris Bowen today announced that two on-shore centre in Tasmania and Victoria would be re-opened as detention facilities and more asylum seekers would be sent into the general community.
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Back in September, two asylum seekers being held at the Nauru detention centre were charged with damage to tents and not co-operating with police. Yesterday, it was decided the men will face court for their crimes.
A spokesmen for the Nauru government told reporters that the court order was a natural progression of justice: the refugees were expected to obey the local laws of Nauru while they remained there.
Few people would argue with this in principle. Refugees and asylum seekers are transitory citizens of a place, and should be subject to the laws of the land.
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If you stage a hunger strike on a remote Pacific island and no one can “like” it on Facebook, has it really happened?
It sounds like an indulgence doesn’t it. They’re still living in tents but the asylum-seekers on Nauru have set up a Facebook page.
It’s unlikely the 400 residents of the tent city that has sprung up on Nauru are using their allocated Facey time to “like” wry graphic illustrations of the creative process or swap selfies captioned: “kicking back on my own tropic island… wonder what the other half is doing today…”
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Confirmation bias is the tendency to gaily pluck the facts that bolster your existing beliefs while blithely skipping over those that challenge you.
In the case of the f*ck-off-we’re-full style of racist, they gather erroneous factoids about the benefits refugees receive like a cowpat gathers flies.
In order to fling about some seeds of truth in this dung-splattered meadow we have prepared for you a hypothetical conversation. (NOTE: Things said by Dim McWit are actual quotes from real live dimwits).
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Ahmed* was an unaccompanied 15 year Hazara boy when he reached Christmas Island on his second attempt in 2010. He would have been in the 800 the Government wanted to send to Malaysia as part of their human swap deal but for the High Court’s intervention.
Even now, almost two years later, his face clouds as he talks of that time of indecision on Christmas Island, the anguish and bitter disappointment of having reached safety to then be despatched again into the unknown. He is still marked by the cruelty of that proposal.
This cruelty is what both major parties want us to be known for throughout our region. South East Asia has the lowest density of Refugee Convention signatory countries. Australia was among the first to ratify this 60 years ago but very few of our neighbours have followed our example. The experience of the Pacific Solution showed that we are not going to be swamped with other countries’ offers of resettling refugees who have come to us for protection. We can’t have it all ways.
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Lyall Mercer has been a consultant to members of the Nauru Parliament in the past, which has given him a unique insight into their thinking and convinced him that Nauru would have be a better answer to the current asylum seeker debacle.
Nauru is not the simplistic and utopian answer to all of Australia’s asylum seeker challenges, but there would be many advantages of setting up camp in this tiny island nation.
The Federal Government is being stubborn and offensively stupid by continuing to talk about Malaysia. Given their failed talks with East Timor and various other nations, they have no credibility left on this subject.
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The sinking of another asylum-seeker boat on its way to Australia, and the loss of life involved, should focus the minds of our politicians. The partisan point-scoring we have got used to on this issue must stop.
It is time for leaders of all parties to act like adults. If they are genuinely concerned by this human tragedy in the Indian Ocean, midway between Indonesia and Christmas Island, the Government and Opposition will now find a way to work together.
Each side will drop the insistence that “We’re right and you’re wrong”. They will seek common ground. They will find a bipartisan solution, even if it involves compromise and loss of face.
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The shocking loss of so many lives off the coast of Christmas Island is yet another appalling tragedy for people seeking freedom from persecution. It will cause great anxiety for people in Sri Lanka, in Australia and elsewhere who fear that relatives and friends are among those who have perished.
The accident will revive sad memories of previous tragedies, particularly for families in Australia who still don’t know the fate of their loved ones.
Inevitably, such a tragedy will also prompt debate about why asylum seekers would risk their lives in this way. From the comfort of their homes, many people in Australia may find it difficult to understand the level of despair that drives people to take these dangerous journeys.
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The tragedy of the deaths of scores of boat people on their way to Australia has exposed all parties to the charge they have abandoned the will and skill to address the asylum seeker issue.
The Government, the Opposition and the Greens have retreated to their political redoubts on the matter and a sullen impasse is preventing any serious bid to resolve what is a major humanitarian problem.
The drownings continue and this latest incident in which 90 people might have lost their lives could shake all three out of the stalemate. But the huge political investment in competing policies on boat people will make that difficult for them.
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Winston Churchill once noted that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the rest.
It may also be true of Chris Bowen’s Malaysian solution -assuming it can be revived somehow. It is the worst possible answer to the asylum seeker problem, except for any others anyone can think of.
I know. I know. Calling a people-swap arrangement “good’’ policy is a stretch. Very few voters would agree right now and for a government that goes backwards even when spruiking a tax cut, the task of selling something so inelegant and counter-intuitive is clearly a bridge too far.
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A straightforward decision by the High Court: the government’s “Malaysian solution” was illegal. But that simple decision is surrounded by a kaleidoscope of complexities, conundrums and challenges. Julia Gillard has to find a way through the maze, and come out of it with a policy which will not cause key elements of her support base to rebel against her.
The maze is complex indeed. The Greens are demanding that all asylum seekers be vetted in Australia. This would be a massive “pull” factor, which goes against the oft-stated aim of the government to stop the boats.
But with the Greens holding a balance of power in the Senate, and one Green, Adam Bandt, holding the tenure of the government with his single vote in the House, there will have to be some real ducking and weaving.
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The Government’s choice now is to bring asylum seekers onto the mainland – maybe even into the suburbs – or find a fresh way to park them somewhere off-shore.
That choice is simple, but the politics and legalities are wretchedly complex as Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott deal with last week’s High Court ruling.
And it now seems increasingly likely that the ultimate decision, and in fact Government and Coalition policy, will have to be made by the High Court.
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Tony Abbott is a beautiful boy. His straight hair, perfect eyes, ears and nose. No, I am not talking about the Opposition Leader but the 3.47kg baby boy in Nauru who now bears his name.
On the way into Nauru Hospital on Sunday June 12, Nauru Foreign Minister Dr Kieren Keke warned Mr Abbott that he should watch out if a child was born while he was in the maternity unit.
Nauru mothers often name their babies after the first person they see, he explained, and there are plenty of Nauruans named after celebrities. “You might have a few questions to answer,” Dr Keke said with a laugh.
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As a chartered aircraft carries Tony Abbott into Nauru this weekend he will have asylum seekers on his mind, but his first glimpse of the island should remind him of another type of refugee.
It could be that in 20 to 30 years the 10,000 folk of Nauru (maximum height above sea level: 65 m) will be climate change refugees looking for somewhere dry to live.
As the Opposition Leader lands seeking a pledge that under an Abbott government Nauru would again be available as a processing centre for boat people detained on the western flank of the Australian continent, the locals might be preparing a few demands of their own.
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In so many ways it looks familiar. Players lining up for their turn to lead, mark the ball, and pass to their team mate leading in the opposite direction. It is the quintessential footy drill.
But with the familiarity comes two big differences. First, despite this being Australian Rules we were not in Australia. And second, every sprinting player left a cloud of dust rising in his wake.
Nauru is a footy mad nation and the Linkbelt Oval is its home of footy. It is the MCG. It may also be the most unique ground in the world of AFL. It is not a field of grass. Rather, footy is played on soft phosphate looking dirt which sits upon a base of coral rock.
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Nauru has been struggling to get a good run in the press of late. Tales of business largesse, overseas trips, and big deals make juicy copy, leaving scant oxygen for any other news about Nauru. Coupled with the reporting on the detention centre which characterised Nauru as a bleak island in the middle of the Pacific, the Australian public could be forgiven for having a dim view of the place.
And yet such a view would not appreciate the deep history and friendship which has existed between Nauru and Australia since Nauru’s independence and before.
Originally known as Pleasant Island for its natural environment and the friendliness of its people Nauru is one of two nations (the other being Papua New Guinea) which has a history of Australian administration pre-independence. This history alone means Australia has a particular role of friendship to play in modern Nauru.
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Nauru has the greatest airline in the world. It’s called Our Airline. The leased-from-Taiwan 737-300 looks a little dated, not having those upturned wing tips which denote a modern plane, but the smiles of the Nauruan flight attendants are warm and welcoming.
There are plenty of spare seats (flying in and flying out) and they offer long-flight sedation in the form of brimming plastic cups of red wine. One of the flight attendants even has her own baby on board, a homey touch.
This airline used to be called Air Nauru. Then, in 2005, the last of its more contemporary 737-400 series jets was repossessed as the country fell into a heap. Clearly, the older plane’s navigational equipment is up to scratch. You’d need it to find this pin-drop island in the middle of the night.
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