An in-confidence report to the department of immigration in January said detention camps on Nauru would need three to five months work before they could be functional. It also said the sites could house a maximum of 400 at the island's two previous detention sites, and any more would lead to crowding and “tension and behavioural issues” very quickly.
But rushed plans are underway to send the first group of 500 refugees there by the end of this month. The government has said up to 1500 refugees could end up dumped on Nauru at a cost of $5 billion over four years.
The first arrivals will live in tents with five to 16 others, sleeping on stretchers and with no air-conditioning in the equatorial heat, the Daily Telegraph said on August 28.
An open-air shower area and wooden toilet block were also being built by Australian soldiers, who are flying to Nauru daily to prepare the makeshift, apparently interim, detention camps.
Major James Dugdell told the Daily Telegraph refugees would be “given the standard stuff we provide to Australian soldiers ... There's no air-conditioning in any military tents unless they’re special ones for hospital wards."
Nauru previously hosted two Australian detention camps under the Howard government. Work is being done on the smaller and more remote “Topside” camp, which has been overgrown by jungle and largely stripped of supplies by impoverished locals. The area has no water supply or waste water treatment capacity.
The other camp, “Statehouse”, is being used as a primary school, a women's shelter and as offices for several Nauru government agencies.
As tents were thrown up in Nauru, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Nauru politicians signed a “memorandum” on August 30 that sealed the deal to imprison asylum seekers on Nauru indefinitely.
Signed at a summit in the Cocos Islands, the deal does not specify the exact number of refugees to be locked up or how long they will remain. Nauru President Sprent Dabwido said that was “still a work in progress”.
But Gillard said at the summit that her government would enforce the “no advantage” test recommended by the Houston report, invoking the notion refugees left to languish in remote island detention was somehow equivalent to an orderly “queue”.
She said: “Our intention is for people to be processed, then wait the same amount of time they would have waited had they not got on a boat and then to, obviously, be resettled as quickly as possible.”
But United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees regional spokesperson Richard Towle said this was “a false equation”, because the wait for refugees in south-east Asia could span decades.
The “cut-off” for refugees eligible to be sent offshore was set at those who arrive by boat after August 13. Since then, more than 1000 refugees on 18 boats had arrived in Australian waters by August 28. Most were being held on Christmas Island and in Darwin.