With a population of less than 10,000 people and an unemployment rate near 90%, one can assume that Australia’s immigration nightmare of ‘boat people’ and revival of the Pacific Solution has come to Nauru’s rescue, giving the small island nation new life with an economic stimulus. On the contrary, Australia’s attention to Nauru and the re-installment of offshore asylum-seeker processing and detention centers is exploiting the country’s political and economic instability. Once a policy of the right-wing Howard Government, the Pacific Solution has become nonpartisan among the major parties in Australia, with opposition only remaining among a handful in Labor and minor parties such as the Green Party. Deaths of asylum-seekers by sinking ships, the ever-persistent people-smuggling business with war-torn clients and anti-immigrant sentiments among the Australian public have driven the government to an extreme policy measure that was intended to be temporary.
The Pacific Solution creates a legal gray zone in which asylum-seekers are currently deprived of recourse to Australian law and can be detained for upwards of five years. Rather than following recommendations from the United Nations to only utilize offshore facilities as a temporary measure, the Labor Government is establishing new, dangerous precedents by setting its policy of exploitation literally in concrete by building housing to hold upwards of 1,500 asylum-seekers on Nauru alone. The Supreme Court of Nauru has perhaps been the country’s saving grace, with the President and asylum-seekers both turning to the court to solve their problems.
Offshore-processing centers for asylum-seekers were part of the Pacific Solution instituted by the Liberal-National Coalition Government led by Prime Minister John Howard beginning in 2001. This policy was once strongly opposed by Australian Labor Party leaders who rejected the idea that offshore centers, and Nauru in particular, could “stop the people-smugglers’ business model.” In February 2008, the last refugees detained in Nauru under Howard’s plan were sent to Australia and the center closed; at the time, the Labor Government under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called the Pacific Solution “a cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful exercise introduced on the eve of a Federal election by the Howard Government.” What has changed the situation so that Labor now is unafraid of using Nauru as an offshore-processing and detention center?
One concern voiced by Labor was that Nauru had not acceded to the 1951 UN convention related to refugees and its 1967 protocols. Once Nauru took steps to become party to the convention, the opposition told current Prime Minister Julia Gillard to “swallow her pride” and “pick up the phone to Nauru” instead of making a deal with Malaysia (a state that had also not acceded to the convention). The ‘Malaysia Solution’ and ‘East Timor Vacation’ are additional stories in themselves – and unlike Nauru those governments were more difficult to sway.
While trying to craft Labor’s version of the Pacific Solution in 2010, Gillard advocated for using East Timor as an offshore-processing center for asylum-seekers. However, the government of East Timor eventually opposed the plan and passed a unanimous resolution rejecting the proposal. East Timor Member of Parliament Jose Teixeira illustrated the difficulties with using Pacific Island nations as Australia’s own penal colonies. Teixeira said “it’s an unfair burden to put on us as an emerging society, post-conflict, as a society that has a number of social and economic pressures on it. It’s unfair to put that additional pressure” on East Timor.
The same can be said for Nauru, a small island country that has experienced political turmoil over the last two decades. Political power struggles have not been overly violent or utilized a coup d’état, in part because Australia is responsible for Nauru’s defense (meaning Nauru does not maintain defense forces). Nauru’s political troubles have continued this year. Parliament has not held a regular meeting since early February due to the resignation of two cabinet ministers that caused the government to lose its majority. President Sprent Dabwido attempted for weeks to dissolve Parliament, but Speaker Godfrey Thoma and the lack of quorum in Parliament stood in his way.
In addition to defense protection, Australia provides development aid to Nauru budgeted at AUD$31.8 million for 2012/13. Opponents of the offshore center argue that at a time of shrinking government budgets, Australia cannot afford to dump funds into these new ‘development projects’ where taxpayer return will be minimal. Over the past four years, “Effective Governance” has been a top goal of development funding and currently around 60% of the total budget . While I do not doubt the overall transparency of AusAID and the commitment of development practitioners, the historically higher level of funding to governance compared to “Sustainable Economic Development” and “Promoting Opportunities for All” are a pathway for the Australian government to have demonstrable influence over Nauru’s political process; this influence allowed for the reopening of offshore-processing center and creation of a permanent mass detention center complex that has impacted the country’s political and economic outlook.
Other changes on the horizon may soon be driven by the Supreme Court in Nauru. The Supreme Court will decide both the political fate of Nauru’s government as well as the fate of asylum-seekers. With many resignations, votes of no confidence and changes of administration over the last two decades, Nauru is lucky to have a functioning Supreme Court that can help facilitate the country’s constitution. To be able to dissolve Parliament and have fresh elections, President Dabwido is considering taking legal action through the Supreme Court; this application to the Supreme Court is likely to take place over the next week. As recently as May 3, Parliament failed to reach a quorum for the fourth consecutive time, continuing to give the president reason to utilize the Supreme Court.
A landmark Supreme Court case involving asylum-seekers set for June includes an application of habeas corpus. Australian barrister Jay Williams and retired US Marine Corps lawyer Michael Mori are part of a “legal dream team formed to challenge the legality of the Nauru detention center.” Mori formerly represented Australian Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks. The team of lawyers are representing the ten detained asylum-seekers facing charges of rioting and willful damage. Williams has been facing a challenge of his own – lack of access to the defendants to prepare an adequate case – which is an infringement of the defendants’ constitutional rights. As a constitutional challenge this ruling could have strong repercussions for Australia’s offshore-processing and detention center.
While Nauru’s government shows signs that they are unable to maintain stability, Nauru additionally lacks significant infrastructure to adequately handle the additional burden of providing for a future thousand-plus residents. The construction efforts for the detention center on Nauru attest to the longevity of the Pacific Solution and the creation of an island full of detainees similar to the US facilities at Guantanamo Bay. Underground cables have been installed for electricity, and water and sewage hook-ups have been difficult among the phosphate field. Additionally, Nauru lacks a modern port; to ship prefabricated accommodation blocks into Nauru, a “causeway of rock and gravel was constructed…and had to be repaired daily.”
While considering the damage that these events are doing to Australia’s regional and international image, the Labor government is pressing onward with development of the offshore-processing and detention center in Nauru. Currently there are more than four hundred asylum-seekers on Nauru, who have now been moved into part of the permanent detention center facilities. One journalist describes the new facilities in Nauru: “unlike the flimsy weatherboard huts used in the first iteration of the Pacific Solution under the Howard government, the new buildings are built to last.” To accommodate 1,500 detainees in a detention camp, there will be a total of ten accommodation blocks costing the Australian government more than AUD$70 million to construct. According to a report, the “initial stage of the project is a twin-storey accommodation centre of about 1000sq m, containing 44 rooms grouped in three pods, connected by covered breezeways. For now, asylum-seekers will sleep two to a room of 4m x 3.5m.” These new facilities were likely built in response to criticism from the international community and nongovernmental organizations about poor conditions being faced by refugees as well as the impact on local communities.
In December 2012, observers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a scathing report on the facilities and processing operations at Nauru. UNHCR representatives expressed the “need for more information and clarity for asylum-seekers about their situation, and counseling on the procedures and time frames of various steps in line with international standards.” The report also stressed that asylum-seekers should be supplied with “adequate conditions of accommodation, and the legal framework, rules and procedures for processing of transferred asylum-seekers in Nauru should be completed as a matter of urgency.” Having risked their lives on a treacherous journey by boat, asylum-seekers being sent to Nauru and Manus Island detention centers are particularly vulnerable. While they are not being placed in a war zone in Nauru, Australia should not send asylum-seekers, especially when they may have mental, physical and economic problems, into a detention center for an undetermined period without adequate legal and medical provisions.
Despite Australia’s move to improve facilities on Nauru, the most glaring problem remains; asylum seekers will be held in a legal gray zone outside of Australia’s borders and outside of the protections of Australian law. Further, off-shoring asylum-seeker processing serves to restrict journalistic access and the flow of public information to the public. These issues are the crux of the UNHCR insistence that “all asylum-seekers arriving by boat into Australian territory [should] be processed in Australia, consistent with general practice.”Add to this Australia’s dubious political and economic pressures and incentives that the government is applying liberally in order to secure the island as their national penal colony. Australia has the option to use its economic and strategic clout in the Pacific in order to benefit the region and promote humanitarian aims. Taking advantage of the economic woes and political instability in Nauru through the perpetuation and expansion of the Pacific Solution is undermining Australia’s standing among its Pacific island neighbors and in the international community.