Eyewitness reports on refugees in Nauru and Malaysia

The Refugee Action Collective organised a public meeting on November 7, addressed by Harry Wicks, who had worked as a carpenter at the Nauru detention centre and Bernard, a Malaysian who has done volunteer work at refugee camps in Malaysia.

Wicks said that Nauru, a small island with a population of 10,000 people, has a 90% unemployment rate.

Last century, the island was mined for phosphate, which was used as fertiliser on Australian farms. Now the phosphate is almost exhausted but Nauru has lost its ability to produce food, because the land has been poisoned and the lake is polluted as a result of mining. All food apart from fish is imported, as is bottled water.

With the virtual cessation of mining, the detention centre is now the main employer. Local workers are paid $4 an hour, whereas Australian fly-in, fly-out workers are paid $5000 a week.

The camp housing the asylum seekers is in the middle of the island, in a former mine. It is extremely hot. Wicks said conditions are "awful".

He said the refugees should be brought to Australia, but the people of Nauru also need help. Tourism is a possible source of income, but help is needed in restoring the island. Not only is the natural environment devastated, but buildings are dilapidated, asbestos is widespread and the electricity supply, produced by an old diesel generator, is subject to daily blackouts.  

Bernard said Malaysia, which is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, is a transit country for refugees wanting to go elsewhere, such as Australia. Some refugees register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, hoping to be resettled in another country, but it takes about a year just for their applications to be processed. Others try to leave Malaysia illegally.

Meanwhile, some of the refugees work in low-paid jobs, such as waiters or construction workers. They have no access to medical care or education. The police often arrest them and put them in detention.

The Malaysian government promotes hostility towards refugees, but the opposition is not supportive either. As a result, there is widespread prejudice against refugees, who are accused of taking jobs away from Malaysians and "causing crime".

Bernard said refugee supporters try to combat these prejudices, but "educating people will take a long time". He argued that this means Malaysia is not suitable to be part of any proposed "regional solution" to the refugee problem.

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