Refugees: How Australia makes Nauru do its bidding

August 10, 2013
Nauru's mining boom stripped the island and left the people in poverty.

Nauru's terrible poverty, stagnant economy and unstable administration has paved the way for its main aid-provider, the Australian government, to sign it up for a similar refugee “deal” as Papua New Guinea.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that refugees who arrived in Australia by boat could be sent for processing and then would “settle and reside” on Nauru.

At a joint press conference in Brisbane on August 3, Rudd and Nauru's President, Baron Waqa, revealed they had signed the island nation onto the Regional Resettlement Arrangement (RRA), which Rudd said was “in parallel” with the PNG deal.

Notably in parallel with the PNG deal is the reluctance of both countries' leaders to agree to any notion of “permanent settlement” or citizenship. This is a grave violation of the rights of refugees, because even once they are found genuine, they would face further uncertainty and instability.

This is the status quo for refugees around the world who face fewer and fewer hopes of being resettled as countries like Australia raise more barriers against the world's poor and persecuted.

But Waqa said Nauru would “stand by Australia”: “Let me maybe make it clear that we will be active participants in this solution to try and assist with Australia's determination of solving this problem of irregular immigration into Australia.”

If it sounded like there was a metaphoric gun to his head while he made his statement, the stark reality is that Australia holds much more than that over the heads of Nauruans.

Rudd's strategy to “work with our neighbours” is a matter of using Australia’s dominant strength to force weaker and dependent nations like Nauru and PNG to sign up to its half-cocked RRA.

In the case of Nauru, the reason the island nation of fewer than 10,000 people is so dependent on Australian support is because it has been exploited for more than a century, and seen its natural reserves plundered, by Australian capitalists and the government itself.

Many of Nauru's most acute problems stem from this legacy.

Refugee advocates immediately voiced concern for the plan, highlighting Nauru's inadequate and decaying healthcare system, given refugees' particular needs.

Nauru's hospital staff lack the qualifications to be registered in Australia, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists told a Senate committee last year.

Australia's travel advice says medical care on Nauru is “extremely limited” to only routine treatment. The only reason medical care exists at all is because Australia helps pay for the hospitals pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, and the repair and maintenance of the hospital and its desalination facility.

Desalination is necessary because the island has almost no fresh water supply. Its arid landscape and lack of arable land resulted from, ironically, the island's vast phosphate reserves, which were strip-mined to exhaustion and sold as fertiliser in Australia and around the world.

Thus the island relies on imported fresh water, foodstuffs and almost everything else. Yet its unemployment rate tops 90%, again due to the fact that its phosphate mining boom provided most of the economy's jobs, until exhausted mines were abandoned.

Now that Australia can no longer make huge profits from treating the tiny island nation as a colonial cash cow, it has converted it to a refugee “dumping ground” for Labor and Coalition governments. Nauru's dependency on aid and imports is diplomatic leverage for Rudd.

He has used it like former prime minister John Howard used it, but this time he is trying to force Nauru to accept and support people it simply has no further capacity to support.

Homelessness and poverty are huge issues for the people of Nauru, so adding generally traumatised asylum seekers, who expected to be processed in Australia, is likely to raise potent conflict.

Consigning Australia's obligations toward refugees to this former outpost of Australian capitalism has to be opposed to protect both refugees and the right of Nauru to sovereignty. 

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