Death In Custody

Thank you for hearing me, I am not a speaker, I am not a brave journalist nor one of Mr Ruddock’s despised lawyers, but I got into Nauru. Why are journalists not refusing to report Mr Ruddock’s utterances until he allows them into Nauru. On Monday a 28 year old man woke up screaming and died of supposed “natural causes”. Journalists accept that a man’s life can end with a media release where his life, his story, his case can be disposed of without review and without a postscript.

This is a death in custody. It is possible that even if a proper inquest was held, no cause of death could be found, grief, hurt and misery don’t show up in a post mortem, and if he died of that, and not by his own hand, then we are still responsible. We broke his heart.

I get Nauru postmarked letters every week from the damned [people]. They are damned by their neediness and by our government’s termination of what few legal remedies they had left. Their loss is this government’s gain.

The new letters tell me of their bewilderment at the deceits and distortions played upon them in their interviews, in the last rounds, of the last appeals they may ever make.

They speak of intolerance and incompetence of their interpreters. If a case was complex and they all are, an interpreter might shut them up or advise them to pretend they were Tajik. These Hazara have been told to prepare their returns to Afghanistan. They’ve been told they have 28 days from the last day of notice of rejection. They will be returned, willing or not. In strangely quiet tones, they tell me they will starve. Some will be killed in Kabul, others won’t dare to venture further. Outlying areas are it’s said, even more unstable than in the era of the Taliban.

Many sold all they had, and borrowed more, in order to get here. They have nothing. They cannot now repay their loans. Shame alone would prevent them from returning to their districts. Why return anyway their lands are sold or occupied by their enemies? Their families are scattered like poppy seeds. Some Hazara on Nauru are well known and wanted by warlords who have authority in the current government. Their dismay at not being permitted to present these stories underlines the slow reluctant extinguishment of trust and belief in us, a civilized country.

Some letters have modest, embarrassed requests. Can Australia give us some tents? Some of us had trades, would tailors’ or bricklayers’ tools be too much to ask for? Many have worked in Iran, often for months without pay on building sites. Perhaps, as slaves, they’ve been slaves before, they might survive. Warlords and Pashtoons are still making gifts of the Hazara women though. Young mothers with children, illiterate innumerate and frightened. There are no exceptions, no one will be saved.

Some of Nauru’s inmates have already lost their minds, some still hallucinate that they are still on the sea, the sea in the cemetery of their loved ones.

Pacific Perversion and Turning Detainees into Dollars

Landing in Nauru with a secret camera and a suitcase

My recent adventure to Nauru would not have been possible if I was a journalist. It wasn’t even allowed to me as a citizen. I had tried many times, then I found a way that didn’t require a visa. By travelling to a number of Pacific countries from New Zealand I was able to visit Nauru for three days as a transit or layover visitor.

I went to Nauru with an undercover BBC journalist, Sarah Macdonald.

Under sufferance I was allowed to visit a selected number of people, but not all of the people on the list I’d prepared. Nor were the various individuals and groups within the camps allowed a visit from me, even when they requested it. There were limits even to the veneer of fairness that management allowed. The management had the running of the camps finely balanced between hysteria and calm.

The running of the camps is done by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Its headquarters are in Geneva. The IOM offers deportation services to about 79 countries. It’s like a mercenary army and seems to be able to do work for governments that these governments find inconvenient or too tricky to perform legally or morally. The detainees told me they became afraid for their futures when the IOM embarked the Manoora, some of them had experienced them in Pakistan and Indonesia.

The IOM offered me a tour, they tried to present this hell as a five-star facility the IOM have turned detainees into dollars, this is the growth industry they want to market to Europe.

Nothing prepared me for the size of the monstrous construction known as Topside Camp. It housed 775 people. Try to imagine a makeshift town compressed into what feels like an oven tray.

Nauru is mostly blinding white rock, which intensifies the heat and repels rain clouds. Its climate is unique even at the equator.

The Topside Camp is high on the “rubbish dump” road. As if art directed, the road was lined with a series of massive dumps of litter, every third pile alight. Nauruans just burn their rubbish, as if to add to their blighted air and environment.

The IOM runs the two camps, Topside and Statehouse. Statehouse had mostly Iraqis and some Iranians, about 350. And Topside, the unfortunate Hazaras and other Afghans. Topside had no trees. The only shade was under the few old buildings. There were six babies and about 200 children, 100 under the age of 5.

I met families who had slept and lived every day in the rough one metre space between house floor timbers and ground, for the first five months of their incarceration. I tried to imagine life there when, at its peak, the camp housed 1200 people. How, without electricity, did they cook, clean, find their way around? The most permanent structures were rows of interview rooms. I saw crying people in them.

I was escorted around the vast camp. In each long house (plastic-sided dormitories), a man lay on every third bed, collapsed from depression, boredom and heat. Some of Nauru’s inmates have already lost their minds, some hallucinate that they are still on the sea.

The toilet facility advertised itself by its stench. Water is found to clear the toilets about once a week. Flush toilets should never have been installed. The pans and lids are coated or specked with dead and breeding insects. Here was the infectious source of health problems.

A playground was newly installed but on each of my three visits, no child used it. In the open heat a child would turn to a crisp.

As I walked the mini streets of shanty camp dwellings and ghastly crowded long houses, I could see what the letters sent to me by refugees had been unable to describe: the boredom, the waiting and the crowding.

Nauru is an island without fresh water. Australia consistently repairs Nauru’s desalination plant which can barely meet the needs of the Nauruan population of 11,000. Water is rationed. For the detainees, water is shipped in from the Solomons. They say that it tastes foul and causes chronic stomach problems.

Food for the detainees comes every two weeks from Brisbane because no food is produced in Nauru.

The soils won’t support much, and leaves get coated with the dust of the phosphate plant still lazily grinding what’s left for a disappearing world market.

Could any location in the world be as unsuited to housing a temporary settlement? Nauru is a sick little country. The hospital is clogged with detention centre patients. Nauru’s Opposition party says that the public service is working solely on detention centre matters. None of its own problems get any attention. If I am not allowed to say that Nauru’s camps are concentration camps, I will say that they concentrate depression, they concentrate despair.

Australia is providing the model, assisting a gruesome 21st century form of commerce, mandatory detention. A business that can flourish out of misery, a business that can produce no solution and no product, only more of what it started with; concentrated misery.

The UNHCR have hurt the refugees on Nauru, and set the cause back six months in Australia by declaring the majority Hazara group not to be refugees. The UNHCR like the IOM do their humanitarian work until the money runs out. To me they began to seem like carrion feeders, they were so numerous, so cheerful, so detached. They lived and worked in a paradise, it’s the Hotel Menen, rarely, it seemed, visiting the camps. Their staff was young. There were careers to be made and more jobs to anticipate, it all looked so promising.

The UNHCR refused to write a letter recommending my visit to Nauru. They used Mr Ruddock’s language when they told me it would be “inappropriate”.

All the administrators on Nauru had an excuse, or a story they told themselves, for their presence there. Some like the IOM said they wished they weren’t. So did many of the staff we met, even the toughest. But to me the point was that they were there. These people were making an unconscionable project a reality. They made a living of it. They made it possible for the government to organise this hell on earth.

Hell ought to be chaos. Countless administrators had made this hell worse through nurture. It is now orderly and well organised.

The expert professionals, the IOM, have assisted the government to make a human warehouse on a third world desert island, like a peculiar social experiment. They enclosed and filed these the most defeated and defenceless people and their stories, and calmly went about the process of destroying them bureaucratically, while preparing the excuses that would allow them to return these victims to their former horror on Afghanistan with less than they had in the first place.

DIMIA will send these poor Hazara back to a country where most of them no longer have land or ties or villages where they may be safe. What land there is outside Kabul is laced with mines and cluster bombs. Our own military is assisting the destruction of what is left. What possible damage could these worn and sad souls do to our country?

We could end this, if we put some spine into our journalists and the fear of god into the Labor Party. We should represent our views to DIMIA staff everyday. We must ask our friends – What are you doing about this? Tell the media – we need more, not less information about Afghanistan. The security problems in Afghanistan are barely reported. There are people here who face return to that nightmare. They need to know.

I will never recover the love that I had for my country. I will never forget those young Hazara men. I think of them, and I think of their dignity, their subtlety. I will never forgive those who sacrificed them. These men are the YOUNG DEAD and who can claim that we haven’t killed them?