Once powered by the riches of a phosphate mine, the former jewel of the Oceania is currently not much more than the blighted home of the international refugees Australia doesn’t want.
By Julie Morse
Aerial view of Nauru. (Photo: Torsten Blackwood/Getty)
In the vast expanse of ocean between Hawaii and Australia lies Nauru. Just 25 miles south of the equator, the bean-shaped island of a mere eight square miles and 10,000 people was once home to a prosperous phosphate mine. The mine dried up in the late 1990s, however, and today the island has become Australia’s dumping ground for refugees. Now some 600 refugees from Myanmar, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other politically unstable countries struggle to survive on this ragged blight in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where temperatures hang in the high 90s year-round.
The mine made the Nauruan people very rich. They bought cars. They got satellite television. They even purchased a golf course.
Before the phosphate mine tore apart the last shreds of its natural beauty, Nauru was the jewel of Oceania. The mine made the Nauruan people very rich. They bought cars. They got satellite television. They even purchased a golf course. When the mine dried up, the government tried desperately to recover its losses. It began selling passports and bank licenses, but those endeavors failed.
In 2001, Nauru had no other option but to sign off on Australia’s Pacific Solution deal. In exchange for injecting the island with refugee detention centers, Australia provided Nauru with millions of dollars in aid. Between 2001 and 2006, Australia gave Nauru $123 million. The Australian government spent another $289 million on just maintaining the detention centers in both Nauru and Manus (a larger island part of Papua New Guinea). In total, the government spent over $500,000 per refugee, and, according to the Refugee Council, that figure is seven times more than it would have cost to naturalize one as an Australian citizen.
In 2008, the Australian government closed the camps and invited refugees to make themselves at home in Australia. That reform didn’t stick, however (partly because, as boats traveled further without interception, refugee deaths rose), and, in 2012, then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard re-opened the camps.
Today, the Australian private company Wilson Security controls the refugee detention centers and subjects detainees to brutal living conditions. The housing tents, according to CNN, don’t have air conditioning and are covered in mold. Refugees are forced to sleep on plastic stretchers rather than beds. Aside from the severe heat, refugees must contend with scores of rats and cockroaches scurrying into their personal space. There have also been numerous accounts of refugees being raped and abused by locals. As if matters couldn’t be worse, everything on Nauru is expensive due to its tiny and remote status. Refugees are only given an allowance of around $12 a day, and that cash doesn’t go far; a one-liter bottle of water costs about $3.
“We thought we would be treated like humans, but we were treated like animals. People were pushed into depression. Every day, more than six or seven people were self-harming, cutting themselves. There is lots of suffering there.”
From afar, Nauru sounds like a dystopian nightmare — important to emphasize “afar” because it’s virtually impossible to get a first-hand perspective on Nauru. The government tries its hardest to prevent any press from entering the island. In 2013, the media visa application fee jumped from $200 to $8,000 (about $5,800 USD). By charging journalists such an exorbitant rate, very few, if any, attempt to apply.
Fortunately, Pacific Standard was able to chat with Mehdi Vakili and Nagaveeran Shanmuganathan, two asylum seekers who, up until recently, lived in Nauru refugee camps. Shanmuganathan refers to Nauru as a “human dumping ground.” In September 2012, he left his home in Sri Lanka and attempted to travel by boat to Australia, but was intercepted by authorities and transported to Nauru, where he stayed for three years. “We thought we would be treated like humans, but we were treated like animals,” he says. “People were pushed into depression. Every day, more than six or seven people were self-harming, cutting themselves. There is lots of suffering there.” Released in April 2015, Shanmuganathan now lives in Perth, Australia, where he has one year left on his visa. He says that the physical and mental trauma he suffered while in Naura has prevented him from being able to work, but he has self-published a book about his experience in Nauru called From Hell to Hell.
“I made this dangerous journey trying to get to Australia,” says Vakili, a political blogger from Iran who spent 13 months on Nauru. “In the beginning the only questions were: Why are we here? What’s going to happen to us? The immigration authorities always told us, ‘You’re unlucky, and we don’t know anything at the moment,’” Vakili says. “They would give you as many sleeping pills as you wanted. Some were taking more than 17 tablets a day; they lost their ability to make conversation with their friends and the other people living there.” At the moment, Vakili holds a temporary visa and works as an engineer for a mining company in Perth.
“They would give you as many sleeping pills as you wanted. Some were taking more than 17 tablets a day; they lost their ability to make conversation with their friends and the other people living there.”
As the camps continue to take a toll on their physical and emotional well-being, the refugees of Nauru remain stranded in a depressing and mysterious state of limbo. “At the end of the day, the major concerns have not been resolved. The people in Nauru have no idea of what will happen to them,” Mark Isaacs, a community worker and author of The Undesirables: Inside Nauru, writes in an email. “People (including children) are still housed in tent accommodation with limited health services, at risk of sexual and physical abuse. There is no independent authority in Nauru monitoring the actions of the service providers or the well-being of the detained.”*
The United States has maintained an apathetic stance on Nauru. When Pacific Standard reached out to Nauru Ambassador Judith Cefkin for her thoughts on the refugee camp conditions, she sent back only a boilerplate response: “We encourage all countries to work with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to find durable solutions for refugees and asylum seekers.”
For now, a cloud of censorship will prevent this little speck in the Pacific from attracting much attention.
*Update — April 12, 2016: This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of a source’s surname.