All this talk of the detention centres on Nauru being 'opened' has got me thinking back to my time there. It seems to me that some people are willing to see this move as a good step forward in addressing the situation for asylum seekers on Nauru. It seems that others are taking a more cynical approach, saying that the timing is suspect (given an upcoming court hearing), the actual conditions facing asylum seekers when they are in the Nauruan community will be just as horrible as inside the centre and that the government have only done this because of pressure from the advocacy community.
Let me share some of my thoughts on the whole thing.
The relationship between the Government's of Australia and Nauru
When the Australian Government announced (in August 2012) that it was planning to re-establish regional processing facilities on Manus and Nauru, an exchange of letters or 'Memorandum of Understanding' took place between the Government of Nauru and the Government of Australia. The MoU was scant in detail. The idea was that a set of 'Administrative Arrangements' with the far more comprehensive agreement would be negotiated over the coming months. (A similar approach was taken with Manus).
The MoU allowed for the Australian Government to begin building temporary facilities on Nauru and initiating the first transfers of asylum seekers to the island. The first transfer took place in late 2012 and the initial 'processing facility' was used to accommodate around 200 people.
The pressure (mostly from the Australian Government) to set up this facility meant that a number of items in the Administrative Arrangements had not been discussed/negotiated before those transfers took place. Three particular items in those arrangements were then used by the Nauruan government to advance their interests in those negotiations:
- an agreement that the Australian government would be exempted from paying excise duties on the 'roller stock' (trucks, cranes, tractors etc) used in the construction of the facility.
- an agreement that no visa fee would be payable for the visas issued by the Nauruan Government to the asylum seekers for the duration of their stay in Nauru
- an agreement that the Australian Government would cover all the costs associated with the Government of Nauru's management of the asylum seekers in the Nauruan population, whether or not they were confined to the detention centre.
All three of these points became points of contention which the Government of Nauru have used to their advantage. For example, even though it had been clear from the beginning that the roller stock used in the construction would be bequeathed to the Nauruan government on completion of the facilities (thus giving the Australian government no opportunity to receive a refund of the excise paid), the Nauruan government ceased the stock at the Port of Nauru until the Australian Government made a payment of over AU$1.7Million for the excise associated with those goods. It was not in the spirit of the agreement, but the Nauruan Government knew the Australian government couldn't do anything to prevent it.
Similarly, the Nauruan government attached a significant, quarterly visa fee to each of the asylum seekers that were on Nauru, bringing in millions of dollars of revenue for the Nauruan Government in the first year of the operation. A simple and effective cash grab that the Australian Government had no choice but to honour.
Finally, the Nauruan Government made it clear that the Australian government would have to cover all costs associated with having the asylum seekers on the island, including if an open centre model was approved. That meant paying for the installation of toilet blocks, bus terminals and other infrastructure to allow the free movement of the asylum seekers around the island.
This became a huge point of contention between the two governments.
An open centre
From very early in the negotiations, the Government of Australia (both Labor and Liberal) made it clear that they wanted to move to an open centre model – something that was originally envisaged in the MoU signed back in 2012 (by a President of Nauru who ended up being forced out due to domestic political issues on Nauru).
The idea of an open centre was not new. When the Pacific Solution (under John Howard) was still in operation, Nauru's Australian detention operations was managed using an open centre arrangement – where the 'detainees' were free to leave the centre but their accommodation, food, medical support and education were provided at the centre. This was the 'regional processing' model that both governments wanted.
However, the Nauruan government knew that the shift to an open centre would cause problems for both the Nauruan population's attitudes towards the political class (see below) and problems for the Australian Government. As such, and like the other points of contention between the two governments, the shift to an open centre was used by the Nauruan government as a bargaining chip.
These negotiations about how to best manage the open centre model and how to manage the expectations of the Nauruan community have been ongoing since late 2012. I am in touch with people who work on Nauru regularly and am aware of the fact that this has continued to be a challenging issue for both governments.
Over the past few months, the open centre model has begun to take shape, first with the 'open' hours being bookended by a curfew and then the hours of this curfew being extended. The announcement over the last few days that the centre will be open 24/7 is simply an extension of this shift.
One question that has been raised is whether this announcement has deliberately coincided with a high court decision that is expected in the coming days. That is, has the Australian Government only chosen to 'open the centre' when the legality of their involvement in detaining people on Nauru comes into question? Perhaps. However, framing the question that way (and implying that this is the only motivation) misses the history.
The Australian Government, in its ongoing negotiations with the Government of Nauru over the management of the operations there, would always be looking for reasons to pressure the Nauruan Government to move towards a fully open centre. It has been for years. The risk that the High Court challenge poses to the whole arrangement (which would have substantial financial implications for the Government of Nauru, aside from the political ramifications in Australia) may have been just the leverage the Australian Government needed to get the job done.
However, to suggest that the Australian Government has only done this because of the domestic risk denies the Nauruan Government of its sovereignty and betrays, although not for the first time, a significant lack of understanding of the Nauruan Government and culture by refugee advocates.
The attitudes of the locals
Another criticism of the 'open centre' announcement that has been prevalent in the last few days (including in questioning by Emma Alberici on the ABC's 7.30 in her interview of Minister Peter Dutton) is that of the safety of asylum seekers in the Nauruan Community. Citing reports of sexual and physical abuse, Alberici claimed that the safety of asylum seekers in the community could not be guaranteed.
Aside from the logic of Minister Dutton's response (that the government cant even guarantee the safety of people in the Australian Community), this question also represents a significant lack of knowledge of the Nauruan context.
Let me explain by way of example.
In Nauru, most government services are funded by the Australian Aid budget. This includes medical evacuations ('MedEvacs'). Each year, the Government of Nauru are funded for a certain number of medical transfers and evacuations. These are allocated first on the basis of priority (i.e. critical situations get first dibs) and then the remainder of the medical transfers are allocated on the basis of a ballot. A Nauruan resident who is after important surgery (for example) that is not critical or urgent in nature, but still significant must enter the ballot.
For example, a cancer suffered on Nauru may need surgery to remove a cancerous growth. However, as this is not considered an urgent need, they must either enter the ballot to receive a medical transfer supported by the government or raise the money privately for the flight (on a commercial plane). Most Nauruan's cannot afford that, so in practice the ballot can act as a ballot for life for local Nauruans who do not enjoy the wealth of the political elite.
A few years ago, a (now former) president of Nauru bypassed the ballot system to put his daughter on a government funded flight to Australia for medical treatment. While no-one argues that his daughter was not in need of the medical services, the rash and overt nature of the corruption caused a community backlash among the local residents.
Fast forward a few years to when the Australian Government set up regional processing operations on Nauru. For obvious reasons, the Nauruan Government were not prepared to allow any medical evacuations or transfers of asylum seekers to reduce the allocation for local Nauruan residents – the issue was too sensitive. However, this meant that detainees at the Regional Processing Centres were flown to Australia by the Australian Government for any urgent or elective (but important) medical treatment that couldn't be provided on Nauru (such as treatment for starvation during hunger strikes).
This was seen as the Australian Government prioritising the lives of asylum seekers over the lives of Nauruans and caused a significant political issue in Nauru – something the Nauruan Government had to manage. (In reality, this sentiment among the Nauruan community was the reason both the Australian and Nauruan Government's had to move more slowly towards an open centre model.)
However, it would be inaccurate to say that the sentiment against the asylum seekers was shared by the entire Nauruan population. As with most populations, the diversity of attitudes and views towards any issue among Nauruans is, well, diverse. There is a sizable group of people on Nauru who are very supportive of helping asylum seekers settle into the Nauruan community. And even among the group who are less comfortable with the idea are generally more unhappy with the way the Nauruan Government have handled the negotiations, rather than with the asylum seekers themselves. (Remembering the history of Nauru – where a political elite screwed the population out of the benefits of a mining boom and then took off to spend their fortunes overseas, leaving the remainder of the population reliant on Aid money to survive – this should come as no surprise. Cynicism towards the political class in Nauru is almost as overt as it is in Australia!)
Of the few people who have some sort of aversion to the asylum seeker's presence, only a small fraction of those could be blamed for the abuses and assaults on asylum seekers that Aberici cited as evidence of possible attitudes among the entire population.
Furthermore, the Nauruan Police have been trained by Australian Police forces, with the head of the unit being a secondee from the Australian Federal Police for a number of years. The quality of the Nauruan Police force far exceeds anything you would usually find on a Pacific island. So the idea that somehow a local Nauruan who has committed assault has more of a chance of getting away with it on Nauru than in Australia is rather an odd assertion.
A modern-day Lord of the Flies or something else?
All of this thinking has left me wondering what a good analogy might be for the Island of Nauru. From the reaction people have had to these announcements that an open centre model was being rolled out in full this week, you would think Nauru was more like Lord of the Flies than anything else. However, I feel that Easter Island would be a better analogy.
Sure, like Easter Island, the financial and political history of Nauru has resulted in it being a failed state. But progressives the world over ought to recognise that, just because and island is propped up by Aid money does not mean it loses its unique and rich heritage and culture. Nauru has culture in droves. The sizable underclass who suffered the effects of political corruption through the last decades have no less pride for their families and communities as they had before. They have no less desire for a quiet and safe life than the rest of us. And they have no less desire to see their communities thrive again than any Island community threatened by the challenges of the modern era.
To suggest that the asylum seekers in Australia's Regional Processing Centre are better off behind the wires of that fence than in the Nauruan Community is, frankly, so far from the truth that it makes little sense. And to suggest that the Nauruan government are a puppet to the Australian Government – who can be forced to comply with the timing of the Australian Government's needs without question – with no sovereignty, independence of thought and strategy is to misunderstand the people who have been sitting opposite us at the negotiating table for a number of years now.