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Stonewalling Asylum Seekers in the Pacific Photo: Department of Immigration and Border Protection (2014)

Stonewalling Asylum Seekers in the Pacific

When your research visa gets revoked by the political leaders of the world’s smallest republic due to “security fears”, you know you are about to hit something. Indeed, being unable to enter a country that others cannot leave provides food for thought.

As outlined in my previous blog, Australia’s offshore detention policy entails that asylum seekers, trying to reach Australia by boat, are intercepted before arriving on the Australian mainland and are transferred to Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG), two sovereign nations in the Pacific. By doing so, the Australian government tries to deter asylum seekers from coming to Australia, framing them as illegal refugees. The latest episode of this policy has been the “No way. They will not make Australia homecampaign, consisting of deterring slogans and graphic novels depicting asylum seekers in distress in offshore detention centres. Indeed, in the “Refugees” section of the website of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the campaign states:

The rules have changed. Check the facts.
The Australian Government is implementing the toughest border protection measures ever to combat maritime people smuggling and protect Australia’s borders. Anyone seeking to illegally enter Australia by boat will never make Australia home.”

In return for financial aid, the governments of Nauru and PNG agree to host detention camps, which are paid for by the Australian government and which are run by various private companies. It has been well established that both countries, in particular Nauru, are dependent on Australian aid for their subsistence, and it has often been alleged that Nauru would have been bankrupt by now without the detention centres.

The Nauruan camps: cruelty and despair

For my Master thesis research, I am currently in Australia to work with the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law (UNSW, Sydney) and the Border Crossing Observatory (Monash University, Melbourne). Over the past week, I had the pleasure to meet persons that have visited the offshore facilities before. From these conversations, two issues clearly emerged. First, asylum seekers are left in significant uncertainty concerning their fate and future. Nobody is able to tell them what will happen to them or when their asylum applications will be processed. In addition, the necessary resources are apparently lacking to provide asylum seekers with a decent living standard. This may come as no surprise given the fact that the country only has approximately 10,000 inhabitants living on 21 km2. Moreover, whilst temperatures are usually extremely high on Nauru, most detainees sleep with as much as 16 persons in a tent without any form of refreshment. In July 2013, despair in the facility culminated in a large-scale riot.

Scrutiny

For my research, I contacted the Nauruan authorities in December 2013 to request interviews with senior government officials about Nauru’s geopolitical position. My initial request was approved. On the 28th of April, however, I received notice that my visa had been revoked on security grounds.

I am in good company when it comes to being refused entry to the island: recently, the visas of both a UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and Amnesty International were cancelled by the Nauruan authorities. Moreover, according to recent reports, Nauru has increased the (non-refundable) fee for a journalist visa with 4000%, from AUD$200 to AUD$8000.

The way forward

This current state of affairs constitutes a missed opportunity not only for my research, but also for the Nauruan government itself. Indeed, if anything, the possibility to speak to a researcher would have provided the Nauruan government with an opportunity to elucidate its views and the current situation on the island. Being interviewed by an academic would have provided the government with an opportunity to explain the way Nauru is hosting the detention centres. Instead, by blocking coverage and maintaining the status quo, critique will largely remain based on the existing, one-sided stories. It can only be hoped that the Nauruan government opens up to more foreign exposure soon, so that real Pacific solutions can be found that incorporate all involved interests – including that of Nauru.

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