Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Please. Don't reopen Nauru.

"They're boiling up milk that's past its expiry date to feed to the children"

Just as we have a responsibly to treat our prisoners well, we have a responsibility to treat our guests well.

In 2003 a friend, SBS journalist Bronwyn Adcock pretended to be a tourist and stopped off in Nauru on her way to Fiji. She slipped under the wire with her video camera, was invited into the camp, and got away with it because the centre's staff had been withdrawn.

We must house our guests in Australia, where out of sight will not mean out of mind.

Here's Inside Nauru - Pacific Despair, broadcast on Dateline, February, 2003:

Inside Nauru - Pacific Despair

February, 2003

Journalists are not welcome in Nauru. Neither are lawyers, human rights advocates, or even concerned citizens. This isolated Pacific nation plays host to two detention centres the Australian and Nauruan governments would rather you didn't see. 18 months ago, asylum seekers on board the 'Tampa' were intercepted en route to Australia. They were diverted to Nauru and John Howard's so-called 'Pacific solution' was born. It's a plan to detain and process asylum seekers outside of Australia. Out of sight and away from access to Australian courts and appeals.


I'm in Nauru as a transit passenger on the way to Fiji. I have three days. I've come to investigate rumours that have reached Australia - rumours of a major crisis at the smaller of the two detention centres.

DR KIEREN KEKE, LOCAL DOCTOR: The asylum seekers marched towards the entrance of the gate and were throwing stones and trying to force their way out of the camps.

EYEWITNESS: The APS people were trying to block them from trying to get out of the detention centre, and the asylum seekers were beating them up with rocks.

On Christmas Eve, a major riot broke out at the camp, leaving many injured.

DR KIEREN KEKE: There were a number of Australian Protective Service men that were hit by stones. One in particular, that I know, suffered a cut to his forehead and needed suturing.

Since then, all services and staff have been withdrawn from inside the camp, and the asylum seekers have been left to fend for themselves. The perimeter of the camp is guarded by the Australian Protective Service. APS is a branch of the Australian Federal Police. Knowing I won't be let in at the front gate, I go around the back way.

The fence for the detention centre is just behind me now. I can hear people talking and music playing. I'm going to go up now and see if I can find anyone to talk to.

REPORTER: Tell me the story.

DYARI, DETAINEE: I'll tell you the story.

REPORTER: Actually, come down here. It's better.

DYARI: Are you from Australia?

REPORTER: Yeah, from Australia.

Dyari - who like nearly everyone else here is Iraqi - is the first person I speak to.

DYARI: So I want to know my future. I want to know where I am going to end up.

REPORTER: Tell me about the riot in December. What happened?

DYARI: Don't tell me about the riot. You want the story of the pain or you want to listen to the grieving of the people?

REPORTER: Yeah, but I want to know why...

DYARI: We have to express our point of view. If you believe you are coming from a country, you believe in democracy. If you believe that, I don't know. You have to give me the right also to express my point of view.

REPORTER: I do. I absolutely do.

DYARI: OK. Why when I am asking someone what will happen to me, I don't get any answer?

The asylum seekers in this camp have had their claims rejected, but to their immense frustration, they haven't been told where they will go next, or indeed if they will leave at all.

DYARI: If you don't want those people, you say those people are illiterate people, you know, they are uncivilised people, put them in the plane and send them back. You can solve all the problem. It's better than keeping the people inside this shit and watching them that are suffering.

Back in Iraq, Dyari was an engineer. He's multilingual and acts as my interpreter. This is the 16th month of detention for these people. Their desperation is evident. Sadisa fled Iraq after her husband was arrested and killed by the government. She's in the camp with her children.

SADISA, DETAINEE (Translation): I want to get out of here. We’re so tired. We’re tired, we can’t take it any more. Yesterday my son wanted to put his hand in the electricity. You can record that. He wanted to electrocute himself. It’s been a month since we had food, water, cigarettes, doctor… What have we done? What have we done wrong? Where are humanity and human rights? Where’s Australia?

REPORTER: Is someone watching out for APS?

DYARI: Yeah, yeah. I talked to some people to patrol.

Wassan is here with her two small children. Her husband is living in Australia on a temporary protection visa but she's been denied asylum. There are seven women in Nauru in exactly this situation.

FEMALE DETAINEE (Translation): We’ve been separated from our husbands for three years. What have these children done, that they can’t see their fathers? She won’t recognise her father now.

REPORTER: Yeah? Is it safe?


REPORTER: What about APS? I'll go under.

I'm eventually invited into the camp. It's possible only because all the staff have been withdrawn. I'm given a chador to wear, so I'm not seen by the Australian police at the front gate.

DYARI: Too much hot. You know, our baby, sleep baby. Too much hot. Hot.

Nauru is already extremely hot and humid, but under the tin roof and plastic sheeting, the temperature is oppressive. As people pile into the room, desperate to tell their story, the most striking thing is their poor psychological state. This man's family has been devastated by detention.

MALE DETAINEE: We are five persons, all they lost something. My big son lost his brain. Now crazy. My wife also crazy. My small daughter, she forget our language. She don't know how to speak. My son, another one, his hand broken about 10 month. No-one take him to hospital.
This is his eldest son. He's had depression for seven months and says he's now addicted to his medication. The depression came on after he was refused asylum.

DETAINEE (Translation): I’m taking five tablets a day to calm down.

DETAINEE: Since arriving in Nauru, we’ve all been living on medication.

I'm again given a change of clothes so I can move freely around the camp. Conditions here are harsh. The International Organisation for Migration, the IOM, is responsible for providing food and medical care here, but they left four weeks ago, taking all staff and services with them.

The people here say they're living on food that was already in storage. A tiny amount has been dropped at the gate. Supplies are dwindling, and they're being forced to ration to sometimes one meal a day. They're boiling up milk that's past its expiry date to feed to the children.

FEMALE DETAINEE (Translation): Look at that dirt. We haven’t washed or changed for a month. The IOM have abandoned us. There’s nothing. Let the government see it all.

They also complain there's no running fresh water and they're being forced to rely on rainwater. The IOM denies they are withholding food and water. They acknowledge that medical services can only be obtained outside the camp.

FEMALE DETAINEE (Translation): My daughter was sick yesterday and she was vomiting, but all the APS gave her was a syrup, and only a small amount. But my daughter was sick and vomiting. Who’s responsible for the children who fall ill. But receive no medication or treatment?

The man responsible for the asylum seekers being in Nauru is Federal Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock.

REPORTER: Is it acceptable to have people, including women and children, inside the camp? Now, they're claiming they don't have enough food or they don't have enough fresh water or supplies, and no-one providing basic services to them.

PHILIP RUDDOCK, IMMIGRATION MINISTER: Well, let me just say that food and water, no matter how many times you suggest that it is not available, is provided.

REPORTER: What are they providing - is it each day, every second?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: As I understand it, every day food and fresh water is provided. Now, the fact that they tell you for the purposes of trying to evoke sympathy that that's not available, is I think not credible.

REPORTER: I didn't see any fresh food.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, people may have well have put it away. They could have been playing a game of hide-and-seek. Let me just say, that provision is made, and I am assured that that provision is made daily. But putting it to one side, if people behave in a way which puts those who are servicing their need in danger of physical injury, they cannot expect to receive the same level of service.

Wassan was at the frontline of the riot that ended the IOM's presence in the camp. The asylum seekers tell a different story to that being told around Nauru.

WASSAN, DETAINEE (Translation): When we went there, we didn’t harm them in any way. We just sat at the gate calling for freedom for us and our children.

Wassan says that on the 24th of December the seven women who've been refused permission to join their husbands in Australia went to the gates with placards. Some of the other women joined them.

FEMALE DETAINEE (Translation): We were at the gate for one or two hours, but no-one came to talk to us or calm us down. An IOM man said “They’re barking dogs. They’ll shut up.”
They claim that a Nauruan policeman then slapped one of the crying women in the face. The situation erupted.

MALE DETAINEE (Translation): When they hit the women, we defended ourselves because they are criminals and could kill us. Then they attacked us with stones. With the Nauruan police, they were stoning us. We didn’t know where the stones were coming from.

The asylum seekers say what followed was a rock fight. They admit that they were throwing rocks, but say it was in retaliation. This man is a Nauruan police officer who was at the scene. At his request, we've disguised his identity. He says the asylum seekers threw rocks first, but also accuses Australian guards of throwing rocks back.

UNIDENTIFIED NAURUAN POLICE OFFICER (Translation): A hail of stones was thrown at us by the asylum seekers. Our inspector told us to throw stones back.

REPORTER: And who started returning the stones?

POLICE OFFICER: The Nauruan policemen first, followed by the APS officers.

REPORTER: So the APS officers threw stones?


REPORTER: Why did the asylum seekers return to camp?

POLICE OFFICER: Because they were being hit by stones.

REPORTER: Last week I also spoke with a Nauruan policeman who said that the Nauruan police threw rocks back at the asylum seekers and some members of the APS joined in. Are you aware of that?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: No I'm not. I've not heard that report and I don't know of it. But I wouldn't give it very much credence.

On the same day as the rock fight, the asylum seekers vented their anger against the IOM by destroying their on-site office. While some of the women here say they are desperate for the IOM to return with their supplies of food and water, for Dyari, at least, this is not the point.

DYARI: I want to go out. If IOM has the power to get me out, they will come. If they can't, what for?

REPORTER: But won't you need food soon?

DYARI: Why you think always about the food? Food doesn't mean life. OK, I keep you. You, in this place, and I give you food and water, that's all. You would be happy? I ask all Australian people, I will provide... if someone is providing the food and everything to them, but they will be confined behind the fence, they feel happy?

While everyone here is suffering as a result of the riot, some have paid a higher price than others. Ahmed has been accepted by the UN as a refugee. On the 16th of January this year, he was due to fly to New Zealand for a new life.

AHMED, DETAINEE (Translation): On the 15th, I fell ill. I was taken to h ospital then to jail. I asked the Nauruan policeman why was I going to jail. He said, “It’s not our fault. It’s the IOM.” On the 16th, the plane left without me. They said it was because I was a troublemaker. I asked what I’d done. They didn’t know. My family went to New Zealand and I was left here.

This is just one in a series of complaints asylum seekers have about their time in Nauru. More than one claims to have spent time in Nauru's prison without explanation or charge. Others claim IOM staff members have bullied them, and granted favours to asylum seekers who inform against others. The IOM has not yet been able to respond to these claims. There are even more complaints about the process of determining their application. Abbas says he was so doped up on anti-depressants at the time of his interview, that he forgot to show them his supporting documentation and doesn't even recall what he said. Because they've had no communication with the outside world since December, many of the asylum seekers want me to take letters to post to their family. Wassan has written one for her husband Jaffar. Jaffar fled Iraq before his wife and is now living in Sydney on a temporary protection visa. He hasn't heard any news from his wife in six weeks and has been desperately worried.

JAFFAR, HUSBAND OF DETAINEE (Translation): I’ve had no contact nor any news. I’ve been living in a state of emotional turmoil. I don’t know what’s happened to my children.

I play for Jaffar some of the footage I shot inside State House. Other than a few photos, he hasn't seen his family for three years.

WASSAN ON VIDEO (Translation): Ask her to film him so his father can see him.

REPORTER: How long since he's seen his father?

DETAINEE: Three years.

REPORTER: Does he remember his father well?

DETAINEE: Do you remember him? (Boy shakes his head.) He only hears his voice on the phone.

WASSAN: Please, please make our voice heard for the sake of these innocent children.

DETAINEE: Just for the children’s sake, convey our voices.

JAFFAR: My only wish is to hold my children in my arms and to be together with my wife, in whatever country.

In the late afternoon the electricity comes on. A group of men gather by fans for a brief respite from the heat. They talk politics - Australian politics.

DETAINEE (Translation): We know we’re victims of the Pacific Solution. We’re being used as an example for those thinking of coming to Australia. If they do, they’ll have our fate of wasted futures and lives.

There is one question that everyone in this camp continually refers to.

DYARI: We want to know this answer to this question. I hope someone will answer it to us one day. How long? How long are we going to stay here? How long? How long? How long? How long?

REPORTER: Minister, how long will the failed Iraqi asylum seekers in Nauru be kept in detention?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, strictly speaking, people aren't formally detained. They're there for processing and for removal.

REPORTER: But how long will this take? I mean, these people have been in detention now for 16 months. When will they leave?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, as with Australia, it occurs on exactly the same basis. If people are prepared to cooperate in applying for documentation, they can be returned very quickly. If they procrastinate, delay, if they think that delay will occasion their release into the Australian community, they're going to be sorely disappointed.

There's no doubt this camp is one of despair.

FEMALE DETAINEE: We feel tired and we feel depression. We can't do anything, just crying. And Iraq is dangerous.

REPORTER: What do you do all day?

DETAINEE: Just cry and think.

Despite being rejected as refugees, the people here clearly can't return to Iraq at the moment. Their future remains uncertain and most seem unable to cope with the prospect of continued detention.

REPORTER: What do you want for yourself?

FEMALE DETAINEE: Me? Now, I want to die. I don't have any future. I want die now, because I don't have any future. Where is my future? Where is it I go? I stay here, all my life I stay to here. Why?

MARK DAVIS: That report from Bronwyn Adcock - and after she left the camp 17 of the asylum seekers were arrested in connection with the riot, but the rest remain in the same conditions, unsure of their fate.

Related Posts

. Debate notes: What if they had used their loaves?

. Oh, here's Abbott's action plan, and a review