Home of craters and rocks

In the midst of the scandal over pregnant refugee Abyan, a victim of rape on Nauru, the country’s Justice minister David Adeang put out an astonishing press release. Headlined ‘Nauru is not Australia’, it states that ‘refugees are not being raped’, that bans on the media were necessary lest refugees ‘start to protest and riot for the cameras’ and that ‘the Australian media approaches us with great arrogance and an air of racial superiority … They do not show us the respect of a sovereign nation and in return we have little respect for them.’

As it turns out, some are afforded it. Conservative commentator and editor for The Australian (rarely a journalist proper) Chris Kenny was the first reporter allowed on Nauru in eighteen months. A non-refundable fee of $8000 for an application has kept most others away, but even those who’ve applied have been uniformly unsuccessful. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton played coy, saying he didn’t know if the Department of Immigration and Border Protection had provided assistance to Kenny – the man himself was less so, putting it down to his known strong support for border protection. (Kenny, in the end, was forced to report the facts: that when she was brought to Australia the first time, Abyan did not decline a termination of her pregnancy but requested counselling. At the time of writing she was, after all that, back in Australia.)

Adeang’s statements are galling not only because they deny the reality that refugees are suffering sexual and violent assaults on Nauru – as the Moss Review conclusively showed – but also because they invoke the language of anti-colonialism and anti-racism to justify the Nauruan elite’s collaboration with the racist, neocolonial designs of the Australian state.

Neocolonialism, of course, has to be understood in the context of what came before it. In his book Swimming with Sharks: Tales from the South Pacific Frontline, Michael Field recalls a Nauruan song:

All our lands on the hill
No longer can be used
Will become home of craters and rocks

As an Australian colonial possession from the First World War to 1968, Nauru was the ‘prize of the Pacific’, in the words of historian Nancy Viviani. Nauru, along with New Guinea, was part of what the Australian ruling class felt to be its legitimate claim: colonial control over the Pacific. Often called the ‘Father of Federation’ in Australia, Henry Parkes thought ‘we ought to hold mastery of the hemisphere’. Australia ousted Germany from both Nauru and New Guinea, and fought for joint British-French control of the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), where Australia also sourced slaves.

The motivation was to maintain Australian security in the region, but control came with an added the added bonus of billions to be made from mining. In 1899, an Australian ‘discovered’ phosphate in Nauru. For decades, the joint British-Australian-New Zealander British Phosphate Commission strip-mined 80 per cent of the island. Thousands of kilos were shipped to Australia every year, sold for well below their market value. 89 per cent of the revenue went to non-Nauruans. Now, Field writes, Nauruans live in ‘a lunar landscape of tall bleached white coral pinnacles’ that is mostly inhabitable. (Australia did abandon Nauru at one point – during the Second World War, leaving 1200 Nauruans to be enslaved by Japan.)

During the colonial period, Australians instituted English in Nauruan schools. A fellow English teacher explained to me how only recently did the legacy of that become clear when officials wanted to teach ‘resettled’ refugees the Nauruan language. They quickly discovered that thanks to the colonial education, Nauruan remains an unstandardised language without a dictionary.

Nauru kept the mining going after declaring independence. It did mean the Nauruan state could afford to provide free electricity and healthcare to its citizens. As a result, Nauruans became some of the richest people in the world – and a few got very rich. Up to $2 billion was spent by the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust on luxurious lifestyles and property investments. One politician even funded a West End musical. The relationship between politics and big money was a tight one: Hammer DeRoburt, the founding President, ruled the country for most of the twenty years following independence – at the same time, he was the head of the island’s main revenue trust.

When the money ran out, Nauru was left grasping for solutions to a major revenue crisis. Then Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating provided an out-of-court settlement in 1993, reportedly of $103 million dollars, for money stolen via phosphate mining. The main financial solution, though, was not colonial reparations, but becoming an offshore tax haven. The Russian mafia claims they ran $70 billion dollars through Nauruan banks. The banks were, later, also linked with financial providers that became embroiled in America’s sub-prime mortgage crisis. But that came to an end with the war on terror, and the US and Australia put pressure on Nauru to bring the banks under control, worried about just who might be able to launder cash through them.

The spectre of another financial crisis was looming when Peter Reith, then Howard-era immigration minister, arrived on the scene in 2001. For both Australian and Nauruan elites, the Pacific Solution seemed a perfect scheme: Australia could look tough on border protection and leave asylum seekers ‘out of sight, out of mind’, while Nauru could keep financially afloat.

But it has come with another price tag for Nauru: selling itself, again, to Australian control. As Nic MacLellan wrote in this journal, ‘the process of warehousing asylum seekers … has increased the number of Australian and expatriate officials in key departments within the country’s administration, including finance, policing, utilities and planning.’

Up to 90 per cent of Nauruan revenue now comes via Australia, 25 per cent via aid and the rest for detention. The aid increases have come with strings attached – those being conditions that demanded the privatisation of key Nauruan services, including the phosphate mining company and telecommunications. The Australian Federal Police provides regular training to Nauruan forces, and under agreement, they’re not subject to Nauruan law. Until he was recently expelled amidst political turmoil, the Nauruan Police Commissioner was seconded from Australia. The Australian High Court remains Nauru’s highest court of appeal. Handily for them, the Australian government is able to pass off any requests for information on refugees to Nauru, while Nauru either ignores them or passes them back. But it doesn’t take much to see who is pulling the strings. Earlier in the year, when refugees asked if they could protest at the Australian consulate, the Nauruan police said they’d need to check with Australia.

This compliance with Australia brings in phenomenal sums of money. In March, Peter Dutton announced another five years’ funding for the refugee camp. Between July and September, Australia paid $280 million for detention on Nauru, with the bulk of that going to the country and detention contractor Transfield. That’s $280,000 per asylum seeker. But it hasn’t been the Nauruan people that have seen the cash.

Most Nauruans live in poverty – surviving off an average of $9000 when the influx of Australian workers has pushed up prices. (Refugee advocate Ian Rintoul writes, ‘Eggs are $1 each; rice is $18 for four kilos; drinking water has to be bought and costs $12 for 19 litres.’) The near-end of mining has created a jobs crisis, with the government and the detention centre, respectively, the two biggest employers. Nauru has no agriculture, and the imported food has created some of the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in the world. Male life expectancy is 58. And the hospital services are worse than those in the detention centre. It’s not hard to see how the Australian-imposed detention centre has bred some misdirected discontent and anger from locals.

The collaboration between Australia and Nauru has gone along with increasing restrictions on freedom. In October, Nauruan police raided the offices of Save the Children – who have now been deported from Nauru following false accusations they were encouraging refugees to self-harm. Save the Children’s staff allege the Nauruan police were joined by ‘black shirts’ from Australian Border Force.

Earlier this year, Nauru banned Facebook. (Refugee children, who’ve just started their own page to campaign for their freedom, are using a proxy server.) President Baron Waqa said the social media giant has the potential to ‘create instability’. Australia says the restrictions are a matter for Nauru. At the same time as the Facebook ban, Nauru’s parliament passed new restrictive laws, the Criminal Code (Amendment) Bill 2015, making public statements  deemed ‘threatening, abusive or insulting in nature’ punishable with up to seven years jail. ‘Political hatred’ can be a trigger for criminal proceedings. Again, Australia decided that on this question, Nauru ‘was a sovereign nation able to establish its own legal framework’.

The official attitude of the Nauruan government towards refugees is an Australian-imported one: they are second class citizens. Those who have been found refugees and ‘resettled’ in the Nauruan community can’t leave the camps, cannot bring their families to Nauru, and are only there on a temporary ten-year visa. Now, Nauru is speeding up processing, and has declared the end of ‘detention’, in an attempt to subvert an Australian court case challenging detention. But those found to be refugees in recent weeks are still in the detention centre because there is nowhere else for them to go. Meanwhile some refugees have been attacked by locals, sometimes accused of ‘taking jobs’. One man was beaten and nearly blinded in one eye. As we know, women like Abyan as well as children have been the victims of sexual assault. This has everything to do with social conditions engendered by colonialism and the detention regime.

Peter Dutton and David Adaeng are singing in chorus. Dutton says that pregnancy on Nauru is a ‘racket’ and has drawn rape allegations into question. The Australian government has passed the Border Force Act that prevents staff from speaking out about assault. If Adaeng detests arrogance and racial superiority, he shouldn’t be making such good friends with those so long its faithful purveyors.


Image: Sean Kelleher/Flickr

Archie Thomas

Archie Thomas is a casual lecturer and PhD candidate at the University of Technology Sydney. Their research interests are education, language, social movements and Australian history. They are a regular contributor to Overland on Australian politics and history.

More by Archie Thomas ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *