“We will not be treated like slaves,” a refugee forced to live on Nauru said during a series of public protests held by refugees on the island.
Hundreds of refugees living in the community, alongside asylum seekers still held in detention camps, have been holding a campaign of non-cooperation and protest since February 25. Children have boycotted class, refugees with jobs have begun a stay-away strike and many are refusing to talk to their case mangers.
The organised actions are in response to people found to be genuine refugees being denied the chance to settle in Australia. Instead, they face temporary placement in the Nauruan community with little security and no clear future.
One protester told the ABC: “We are refugees, we are not slaves. The way that we're living here and the way the Nauru government is behaving with us is just like slaves.”
The refugees living outside the detention centre have also been peacefully assembling in Nauru’s capital of Yaren.
Nauru’s government and police have responded with intimidation and mass arrests. After one protest on February 27 led to several injured refugees, Nauruan police distributed a notice to refugees on March 3 warning that anyone taking part in protests could be jailed for up to three years.
The next morning, they arrested eight people they accused of being “ring leaders”. The Guardian said one was believed to be 13 years old. Undeterred by the notices, a 300-strong protest tried to assemble at the local police station demanding their release.
In response, police reportedly arrested up to 150 people, including children. The Refugee Action Coalition said the police’s heavy-handed treatment during the arrest provoked panic attacks for two women taking part in the protests.
The protest in Aiwo District just ended peacefully with groups of protestors voluntarily boarded police bus and drove to the Police jail.
— Clint. Deidenang (@clintd22) March 4, 2015
Men and women were held in separate cells for more than 30 hours, reports said on March 5.
The brave actions of the men, women and children – who have been on Nauru for more than 18 months – were met with scorn from Australian and Nauruan politicians.
Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton said the demonstrations would not lead to refugees being resettled in Australia.
“If people who have been resettled on Nauru believe that these activities will change Australia’s position – they are wrong,” he said. “Those who come illegally by boat will never be settled in Australia.”
He said refugees owed Nauru “gratitude and respect”.
Nauru’s President, Baron Waqa, accused “faceless Australians” of provoking the protests.
"Refugees were safe in the country and that talk to the contrary is blatant lies spread by Australian advocates and lawyers," he said in a statement.
But refugees are not safe on Nauru. Mass, arbitrary arrests in response to peaceful protests by people owed protection is the latest form of the appalling treatment refugees are facing.
Medical services on the island are so lacking that two pregnant women had to be flown to Australia to give birth.
Last October, four teenagers – who had sought asylum as unaccompanied minors and were sent to Nauru – were attacked and hospitalised by Nauruan locals. One of the victims, a 16-year-old Afghan refugee, said four men on motorbikes had set upon them on a Sunday afternoon. "They slapped me and kicked me and did the same thing to the rest of the boys and when we ran away they threaten [to kill us]," he said. The attack kept him in hospital for several days.
In November, a group calling themselves the “Youth of Republic of Nauru” distributed photocopies of a letter warning refugees to “Go Away of our country and just to hell with all your concerns if not, get ready for bad things happening and waiting ahead”.
Among several paragraphs of racist diatribe, the letter accused refugees of taking jobs and said they were a “headache”.
In an article for The Conversation, professors Suvendrini Perera and Joseph Pugliese described the document as “characteristic of hate manifestos designed to mobilise communities against targeted groups”.
It is not the fault of locals that tensions have reached increasingly desperate levels. Nauru is a poor and under-serviced nation, where unemployment is high and the government depends on Australia’s aid to prop up an increasingly corrupt economy.
Australia is using and abusing this relationship to warehouse its “unwanted” refugees out of sight of the Australian public.
No one on the tiny island nation is happy with the ramifications of the “Pacific solution”, and it is the refugees and asylum seekers who are reaching out for a humane resolution.
An example of the violence against refugees: 'A refugee is punched by a man in civilian clothing while filming a protest staged by refugees in Nauru over the weekend.' (The Guardian)