Nauru was built to ‘destroy’ refugees

Photo of Manus Island detention centre, obtained by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre

A former welfare worker at the Nauru refugee detention camp says the July 19 riot that razed most of the Topside compound was an “inevitable outcome” of a “cruel and degrading policy”, in a new book released last week.

The Undesirables by Mark Isaacs follows several big whistleblower revelations that have come from Nauru since the camp was re-established by then-PM Julia Gillard in August 2012.

In February last year, veteran nurse Marianne Evers broke ranks to tell ABC’s Lateline that she likened the offshore “processing centre” to a concentration camp. “I knew that conditions weren't ideal, but conditions were less than ideal. In fact I would describe them as appalling,” she said.

A joint letter by Salvation Army staff in the aftermath of the July 19 protests said they had predicted it would happen: “The most recent incident in Nauru was not borne out of malice. It was a build up of pressure and anxiety over 10 months of degrading treatment, and a planned peaceful process that degenerated. It was a reaction to a refugee processing system that is devoid of logic and fairness.”

Isaacs’ book offers the same conclusions, the Sydney Morning Herald reported: “Criminals were given a sentence to serve: these men were not even given that,” Isaacs wrote. “They feared they would die in Nauru, that they would be forgotten, that they would become non-people ...

“It doesn't matter who you are, or what side of politics you are on, if you had been in the position I was in, having to sit there and have a man's friends show you the cord that he tried to hang himself with, crying with them, the rain coming down … it was overwhelming.

“The camp was built around destroying men ... grind[ing] them into the dust.”

Since the riot and Isaacs’ time on the island, Australia has transferred women and children from Manus Island to the Nauru camp. The unaccompanied children were sent to the remote camp, which still has mostly tent-based housing, last month.

After the visiting the centre last October, the UN refugee agency said: “Overall, the harsh and unsuitable environment at the closed [refugee processing centre] is particularly inappropriate for the care and support of child asylum-seekers ... UNHCR is of the view that no child, whether an unaccompanied child or within a family group, should be transferred ... to Nauru.”

Indeed, individual asylum seekers have figured this out for themselves. A Rohingya couple opted for an abortion rather than risk giving having a baby in the awful conditions on the island.

“In Nauru, the weather is very hot — up to 40 degrees,” the husband, Mamun Motiur, said, the ABC reported on February 24.

“And if we born with a child in Nauru the child must die because the facilities [are] not good in there.

“There is a very small room. Families are given a fan. But in a single camp there is no fan. When you take meals — lunch and dinner — you must be standing two hours in the line.
“So we think if we [have] the child now he, the child, has no future. So we decided to take abortion.”

Immigration minister Scott Morrison rejected the couple’s claim that the requested termination was the result of conditions in the Nauru camp, calling it “outrageous”.

Uncertainty for asylum seekers on Nauru has grown much worse in recent weeks. The island’s chief justice, Australian Geoffrey Eames QC, resigned this month over the cancelling of his visa and the deportation of the island’s only magistrate in January.

On Manus Island, three asylum seekers tried to commit suicide in the space of a week. Two Iranian men cut their arms with razors and an Afghan man tried to hang himself. Another refugee said the Iranian men were angered by over the PNG-led inquiry into last month’s fatal violence, in particular comments by Justice David Cannings, who is leading the inquiry, that detainees appeared healthy and well.

Another refugee told the inquiry about the prison-like conditions at the centre, including worm-infested bread.

Despite reports that police were ready to arrest several people involved in the violent death of Reza Berati, PNG staff were sent back into the Manus centre. Sources in Australia say many people that were hurt during the violence have gone missing. Some who had been released from hospital had not returned to the centre while investigators were there.

Despite mounting evidence from whistleblowers that Nauru and Manus Island are inflicting severe psychological harm on men, women and children — precipitating both the camps’ constant protests and bouts of self-harm — the Abbott government shows no signs of reversing the cruel regime.

In addition to extending naval training for turning boats back at sea, including buying new orange lifeboats, Abbott has announced plans to buy several Triton drones, at a cost of US$2.7 billion, to patrol the country’s borders for asylum boats.