The tiny and barren island of Nauru is the site of an offshore Australian immigration detention facility. Photo: TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

A Pacific powderkeg: why Nauru will dominate the news this week

Jacinda Ardern flies to Nauru this week for the 49th Pacific Islands Forum, and the host nation is already making headlines way beyond the official agenda. Don Rowe explains 

Fifty years after it became the world’s smallest republic, Nauru plays host this week to the 49th Pacific Islands Forum amid international outrage over the treatment of asylum seekers detained on the island.

Attended by 18 members from around the region, including Australia and New Zealand, the forum seeks to give smaller Pacific nations a greater collective voice and influence over issues like climate change and overfishing.

But hovering over this year’s event is an ongoing humanitarian crisis, with a report published today warning that children as young as seven have made repeated suicide attempts, dousing themselves in petrol and becoming catatonic. This comes as pressure mounts on Jacinda Ardern to prioritise the plight of refugees there and Nauru faces criticisms over its clampdown on media coverage.

The report, released by the Refugee Council of Australia, details expert assessments showing those living on Nauru are among the “most traumatised they have seen, even more traumatised than those in war zones or in refugee camps around the world”.

CHILDREN TAKE PART IN A PROTEST ON NAURU, 2015 (NB: IMAGE BLURRED TO PROTECT THEIR IDENTITIES)

It also says the council has received reports of children swallowing razor blades and stones and attempting to overdose amid a climate of sexual assault against children and women on the island – often perpetrated by guards and other officials.

Six years after the Australian government began sending asylum seekers to Nauru, there are still around 900 people left on the island, including an estimated 109 children. The number of children fluctuates as they are shipped to Australia for emergency medical treatment, often by a judge’s order after doctor’s recommendations fall on deaf ears.

Ardern has reiterated the New Zealand government’s longstanding offer to take 150 refugees from Nauru and Manus, but yesterday confirmed she would not meet with individual refugees.

World Vision’s James Harris, writing for The Spinoff, said New Zealand should not accept Australia’s insistence that the resettlement decision must wait until negotiations with the US on a separate deal is complete, as President Trump’s travel ban would prevent most refugees from entering America in the first place. 

Former Australian home affairs minister and immigration hardliner Peter Dutton has in the past described New Zealand’s offer as a “bad option”, suggesting it would make people smugglers more desperate to reach Australia. But after the leadership spill last month, that decision now rests with David Coleman.

Amnesty International, alongside more than 80 other NGOs, urged the Forum to prioritise negotiating an immediate end to Australia’s immigration policy, saying it was cruel, degrading and a “stain on the region”.

Last week, asylum seeker tents were demolished ahead of the Forum, with sources telling the Guardian it was to spare visiting leaders the sight of the notorious camp.  

Australian employees have been confined to the RPC-1 complex on the south of the island with the medical and other administrative facilities. Refugees working the Menen Hotel have reportedly been stood down to avoid “incidental contact” with visiting leaders.

The government of Nauru has also blocked the ABC from covering the Pacific Islands Forum, refusing to issue its journalists visas because of allegations of interference in its politics, as well as bias and false reporting. In 2015 the ABC reported President Baron Waqa and his justice minister were allegedly bribed by an Australian phosphate dealer.

Just two Australian news organisations have legally reported from Nauru: Channel 9’s 60 Minutes and Sky News. The Guardian applied for a visa but was rejected. And while the government’s $8,000, non-refundable visa application fee has been waived for the forum, President Baron Waqa told the few assembled journalists at a pre-forum workshop over the weekend that sloppy media coverage leads to ‘blurred lines’ between fact and faction.

“With the fast developing world of social media and wannabe journalists, the lines that distinguish real journalism and baseless or fake news become blurred,” he said. 

“As gatekeepers, you ultimately mould and conduct what is being published to the masses, ultimately shaping their views and opinions of the world whether fact or gossip.”

Nauru’s politics are notoriously riddled by corruption claims. In 2015, New Zealand suspended upwards of $1m foreign aid to Nauru’s justice sector, citing the removal of senior members of the judiciary, and the suspension of most of the country’s opposition MPs as well as new laws restricting freedom of expression and assembly. The arrest of MPs, the sacking of judges and tight control of the state-owned media is commonplace.

In April Nauru ended its arrangement with the high court of Australia, which was until then the avenue of last appeal in the Nauru justice system. Australian Lawyers for Human Rights say the country is in a “rule of law crisis”, having removed the high court without establishing an alternative.

But in 2017-18 the Australian government directly provided two-thirds of Nauru’s entire revenue of $170m either as direct aid, resettlement and visa fees for refugees, fees to the Nauru Regional Processing Centre Corporation, or reimbursements to Nauru’s government, reports the Guardian. (Nauru’s next-biggest source of foreign cash is China.)  

That aid doesn’t offer Australian citizens carte blanche on the island, however.

Since December, six staff from Canstruct, a contractor responsible for welfare and garrison services, have been shipped off Nauru after making formal complaints with allegations of child abuse and possible breaches of child protection legislation.

Minister of foreign affairs Winston Peters departs for Nauru today, with the prime minister following on Wednesday.


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