The president of the Pacific island nation of Nauru told Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott that it would move to sign the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees though it has not taken formal steps to do so.
Abbott said on June 13 this meant Prime Minister Julia Gillard had “run out of excuses” not to reopen the centre and send refugees to the small, poor nation about 4000 kilometres from Australia.
On his 36-hour visit to Nauru — flanked by opposition immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison and Australian media — the Liberal leader said the detention camps could reopen “in a matter of weeks” with only “cosmetic upgrades”.
Abbott and Morrison’s trip came amid mounting criticism of Labor over its Malaysia refugee swap plan.
The opposition has taken Labor’s extreme and inhumane “solution” to so-called people smuggling as an opportunity to push its planned revival of the “Pacific solution” and the reintroduction of temporary protection visas.
Abbott said “compared to Malaysia” Nauru was “more humane”, “cost effective” and “proven”. He told 2GB radio’s Alan Jones that Nauru was “so keen to help”.
Nauru’s president, Marcus Stephen, said the nation supported reopening the centres, closed in 2008 when the Rudd Labor government ended the “Pacific solution”, because Nauru owed “a debt of gratitude” to Australia.
It hosted two of the former Howard government’s “Pacific solution” detention centres between 2001 and 2007 in exchange for funding and programs from Australia.
Nauru relies heavily on Australian aid and imports — including funding for infrastructure such as a police station and a school, as well as food and drink, steel, iron and aluminium.
The impoverished island nation has a population of fewer than 10,000, little arable land, almost no fresh water supply and 90% unemployment. Its workforce was mostly employed by the phosphate-mining boom that ended in the 1990s.
Diabetes and heart disease cause high mortality. The island’s main hospital is more than 70 years old and in disrepair.
Housing is also a serious problem: the Daily Telegraph said locals now lived in “unused mobile rooms left over from John Howard's Pacific Solution”. A primary school was also being run out of one detention camp.
The department of foreign affairs and trade said Nauru’s total debt was $869 million, 20 times its GDP, in 2009-10. The 2010-11 Australian federal budget provided about $26.6 million in aid to Nauru.
Despite Nauru’s terrible poverty and stagnant economy, Morrison said that the prospect for reopening an Australian detention camp there was “better than it was a decade ago”.
Abbott claimed taking asylum seekers who arrive in Australia to a detention centre on Nauru was “proven” to “stop the boats”.
But his comments have come under fire from refugee advocates and the UN high commissioner on refugees.
A Canberra spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees told news.com.au on June 6: “The Pacific Solution, including the use of Nauru, was a deeply problematic policy, both as a matter of principle and for those refugees and asylum-seekers affected by it.”
A big problem with Abbott’s and Gillard’s so-called solutions — sending asylum seekers that reach Australia to detention in regional nations — is that refugees are denied access to Australia’s appeal process or to thorough investigation of their protection needs.
More than half those who appeal their rejected asylum claims in Australia succeed in having them overturned.
It also means their indefinite and agonising detention can be prolonged further because they are outside Australia’s rule of law, removed from public scrutiny and out of reach of supporters and advocates.
Under Howard, many refugees held on Nauru spent years locked up with no help or access to a fair hearing for their asylum claims. Contrary to ALP claims that “most were resettled in Australia anyway”, about 30% were sent back to the unsafe places from which they fled.
Forty-five percent were resettled in Australia and the rest were sent to a third country. The last refugee held on Nauru had spent seven years there.
Phil Glendenning from the Edmund Rice Centre told ABC’s The World Today on June 13 that sending refugees to Nauru was disastrous: “Just because one solution [has] got massive problems like those in the Malaysia solution, it doesn’t mean that Nauru doesn’t. I think anyone calling for the reopening of Nauru has forgotten the history.”
Glendenning followed up on several Afghans deported back to Afghanistan under Howard, and later documented that many were later tortured or killed: “There were 42 unaccompanied minors, children, sent back into the war zone that was Afghanistan.
“We know that 11 of those people [who were sent back] were killed and I believe that number is far higher – well in advance of 20 including children,” he said.
“Terrible atrocities were done to people out of Nauru that I would be staggered to think that Nauru would be a solution.”
Immigration minister Chris Bowen said the Labor government had ruled out any Nauru plans because “the majority of people who went to Nauru ended up in Australia”.
But the government would restart another Howard-era refugee camp on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. It announced in early May that refugees not taken to Malaysia would be detained on Manus Island indefinitely.
A regional processing centre — whether run by Labor or the Coalition — denies Australia’s responsibility under its own and international laws and outsources human suffering to countries ill-equipped and dependent on Australian aid.
The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said the plan also heralded a return to “the horrors of the Pacific solution” and will “burden an impoverished country with our responsibility”.
Greens MP Adam Bandt successfully moved a motion in federal parliament on June 16 that condemned the government’s Malaysia refugee swap.
The motion called on the government to “immediately abandon the proposal”. Bandt said: "We should not be contracting out our obligations overseas and swapping the human rights of one group of asylum seekers for another.
“I hope the government listens to the Australian public and parliament and scraps this deal.”