November 21, 2012
THE vision is of an open processing centre, where asylum seekers live in cabins, are free to come and go as they please during daylight hours, and can speak to the media if and when they choose to do so.
But, two months after the first asylum seekers arrived on this tiny dot in the Pacific, the reality is very different to the expectation – and the build-up of frustration and despair among the 387 detainees is palpable.
After requests to visit the centre were politiely rejected by Australia’s immigraton department, your correspondents hiked over the jagged remnants of phosphate mining that once made Nauruans (on a per capita basis) the world’s richest people, to survey the compact tent city from above.
As soon as they saw us, scores of asylum seekers gathered at the perimeter fence, raised their arms as if manacled, and began chanting lines including “We want freedom”, “Don’t make us crazy”, “We want justice” and “Don’t kill refugees”. Placards and banners delivered the same message, one of them a huge sketch depicting a dove in chains.
The surreal site included one asylum seekers perched on one of the tents that house up to 16 asylum seekers in his own one-man protest, and evidence that recent heavy rain has taken its toll, in the form of tarpaulins draped over tents.
Later came confirmation from Nauru’s foreign minister, Dr Kieran Keke, that construction of the permanent accommodation is yet to even begin because a deal has not been struck with the hundreds of Nauruans who own around six portions of land that cover the site.
“We had wanted the construction to commence ages ago, weeks and months ago. It been extremely frustrating for us as the Nauru government that there has been this delay, which is largely on our side,” an apologetic Dr Keke said.
“Our commitment has been to provide an environment that is as comfortable as can be provided (and) we recognise that the current environment is not that. We are keen to get the construction going as quickly as possible.”
The minister also expressed surprise that the vision of an open centre is yet to be realised, saying he only discovered that the centre was indeed closed when he was briefed by a visiting Amnesty delegation yesterday. “I had the impression that we were already implementing the full open centre policy,” he told reporters.
After three days of meeting with asylum seekers, service providers and others, the Amnesty team have been struck by the “serious disconnect” between the recommendations of the government’s expert panel on asylum seeker policy and the reality on the island.
“The first thing the panel talked about was appropriate accommodation, and I think everybody acknowledges that the accommodation is not appropriate. The fact that people aren’t getting out of that centre is something else that the expert panel didn’t envisage,” said Amnesty’s Dr Graham Thom.
Dr Thom said it was clear that lease arrangements should have been sorted before asylum seekers were sent to Nauru, adding: “I think they (the Nauru government) would have liked to have had time to have those negotiations without the stress of 400 vulnerable people slowly going crazy.”
The news for the asylum seekers was not encouraging on another front, with Dr Keke conceding it would be a matter of months before Nauru had either the human or physical resources to begin processing those who are living in tents.
The only plus was that they had been able to register their despair to a couple of complete strangers from Fairfax media, who emerged on the rocky moonscape high above the camp in the midday heat. Our wave of good-bye was greeted with a shouted “Thankyou”.