Profit And Loss In The Pacific – A Speech At the Steps Of The Library
A Statement by Kate Durham
Detention letters from Nauru surround me like piles of crumpled leaves, I preserve them as if they’re already the last remains or relics of the mostly Hazara faces I met in Nauru, a place I’ll never forget. 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.
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.
Some of Nauru’s inmates have already lost their minds, some still hallucinate that they are still on the sea, the sea in some cases is the cemetery of their loved ones. Return means nothing to them. Return, even to sanity would be unwise.
My bitterness increases as I read doctor’s orders given to a young Iraqi mother, requesting laser surgery [by a date] no later than December 2001 for her eyes. She is now blind. I read doctor’s orders for heart surgery for a little boy with a terminal condition, untreated, all untreated.
I believe the damned and the rejected will be sent to Christmas Island. I don’t believe the government will send them to Iraq or Afghanistan, not for some time, at least, which makes their threats an even more cruel disgrace.
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’d been refused a visa several times but I was determined to get there and when BBC journalist Sarah Macdonald said she was trying to get in, I told her of a route, I knew of, that whilst prolonged and expensive, would enable us to visit Nauru for three days as transit or layover visitors. We started in New Zealand, and travelled the sad Pacific but we got there.
Mr Ruddock admitted to my BBC companion that Australia now runs Nauru’s Immigration Policy. Apparently we protect our sovereignty by disregarding theirs.
So it came as quite a shock for Mr Ruddock to find that a busybody Australian like me and an undercover BBC journalist got into Nauru, legally through a loophole his department had failed to seal.
I wanted to speak directly to the detainees who’d been writing to me. And I wanted to discuss and collect letters from them, which they believed were too sensitive to send in the mail. Amnesty International had a number of sensational documents and I had access to only a few of them. They claim mistreatment by our defence forces, they hinted at darker stories including deaths at sea. If there was any truth in them, I felt I should collect them in the hope that I could get their stories investigated.
I took detainees’ letters, mailed to me in Australia, inviting me to visit them in Nauru and a file of letters especially from Mohammed I had been writing to, for whom I have made an application to sponsor. I took cash from husbands lost in limbo in Australia and I took gifts, dictionaries, toys and clothes, letters from lawyers in search of survivors of sea tragedies, in which their family members had drowned.
In theory, Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians held in the Nauruan camps are legally entitled to visits. That should mean they are welcome to invite friends, lawyers or journalists. In practice, they are not, as I was about to find out.
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 name IOM is well-known by refugees and yet the word ‘refugee’ was not used by the IOM staff in Nauru. I was corrected if I did; I was told “they are asylum seekers”. The word ‘detention’ was also unknown there, they don’t detain. The IOM in Nauru talked like Pangloss. “It was the best of all possible worlds.”
The IOM made us a show of the kind of sinister hospitality it offers through its manager, a tall, patrician American named Cy Winter, some said he was 7 feet.
This American managed in the course of three days to schmooze us and then to threaten us with arrest and jail. He gave us a guided tour of the camp, was our host at an extravagant party complete with native dancing girls, and finally, on the last day, made good his promise of arrest, but instead of jail, he assaulted me, physically grasping my neck! His behaviour was a physical illustration of the nature of his organisation. It demonstrated the arrogance, ruthlessness and defensiveness of the IOM. He was in a sense its embodiment.
But before the “incident”, as it’s now known there, he invited Sarah and me on a guided tour of the camp, as he’d given us a good threatening a full ½ hour earlier. He’d become suspicious of us but he did not dream that Sarah was with the BBC making a documentary about the Pacific Solution, for “Correspondent”, a current affairs program.
The tour was supposed to be unrestricted, with my friend, a young Hazara man, Mohammed, leading the way. It was quite comical because it had two guides, Mohammed and the American giant leading him. It was stage managed, but it didn’t matter how Cy Winter tried to present this hell as a five star facility; it was a five star hell. Nothing prepared me for the size of the monstrous construction known as Topside Camp. It houses 775 people. At its peak, it has held over 1200. It was a town, an artificial town, as if they had work there, a purpose, something to do.
Try to imagine a temporary town compressed into what felt like an oven tray. Nauru is mostly blinding white rock, which intensifies the heat, creating more heat which repels rain clouds. Its climate is unique even at the equator. The heat of Topside Camp was magnified by the position of this site. Well away from any passing acquaintance with a sea breeze, high on “rubbish dump” road. What other name could you give the means of entry to HELL? As if art directed, the road was lined with a series of massive dumps of litter. Every third pile was alight. Nauruans just burn their rubbish, as if to add to the blight of their devastated air and environment.
The IOM runs two camps, Topside and Statehouse. Statehouse is also unfortunately sited but does appear to have a couple of trees. Statehouse has mostly Iraqis and some Iranians in it, about 350 of them. And Topside, the unfortunate Hazaras and other Afghans. Topside had no trees, no shade except for what the buildings offered. The best shade was under the few old buildings on the site. There are six babies, about 200 children, about 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, as well as this indignity, 1200 people had to manage without power. How did they cook, clean, find their way around? I couldn’t, what I was witnessing was bad enough. The most permanent structures seemed to be the rows of interview rooms, I shuddered to think of what tears had been shed there.
As I was escorted around the vast camp, each long house (plastic-sided dormitories), had a man lying on every third bed, collapsed from depression, boredom and heat. Men pace and walk at night, afraid to sleep, some are so delusional they think they are still at sea.
The toilet facility advertised itself by its stench long before I got to it. I wasn’t guided through the loo block – something I was grateful for – but I do have photos to attest to their abysmal standard. Water is found to clear them about once a week. Flush toilets should never have been installed. As a result, there is a catastrophe of health and hygiene problems that the WHO say may never resolve. The toilets are coated or speckled with dead and breeding insects, if you want to know, something the IOM would rather you didn’t.
It would prefer that you learned that a play area has been constructed.
On each of my three visits I looked to see if any child used it. They couldn’t, of course. In any exercise a child would turn to crisp in the open heat. Nonetheless, play equipment was installed. It stood as a testament to the IOM’s obsession with appearances and its proclivities to spending other people’s money and making mistakes, like the toilets. They are known as the “International Organisation for …-ups on Nauru.” No doubt the IOM did its ruthless best. But its best would have been to refuse to run the camp in these impossible and unlawful conditions.
As I walked the mini streets of shanty camp dwellings and ghastly crowded longhouses, I could see what the letters had been unable to describe, the boredom, the waiting and the crowding. The scarcity of food for 4 months has turned into too much starch and fat. Nauru is an island without fresh water. When working, its desalination plant can barely meet the needs of the Nauruan population of 11,000, many of whom have defected to Australia already as economic migrants, and more will follow. Australia is currently meeting the water needs of the Nauruans by constantly repairing the desalination plant, and water is rationed. The population is growing. Will Australia accept Nauru’s economic refugees fleeing water shortages? The answer is we already are.
For the detainees, the IOM ships in water from the Solomons. It’s foul tasting, I understand, but wasn’t game to sample. I didn’t want to share the chronic stomach problems of the detainees.
The IOM flies in food every 2 weeks from Brisbane. No food is produced in Nauru. The soils won’t support much more than weedy growth, and leaves get coated with the dust of the phosphate plant still lazily grinding what’s left for a disappearing world market.
Australian technicians are flown in regularly to repair Nauru’s communication systems – to make a phone call is really hard.
Could any location in the world be as unsuited to housing a temporary settlement? It requires 2 sets of guards; one inside the camp and one outside; doubling the payroll. It’s done because of tricky legal requirements that don’t apply in Australia. Nauru’s constitution is like most new ones and won’t allow imprisonment without trial. The IOM accepts security inside the camps but wants guards to be kept at the perimeter to do the occasional bits of rough stuff. Nauru’s prison constantly imprisons detainees, they are held naked (to prevent suicides) for period of up to three weeks.
Australia and the camps require the maintenance of an entire airline that services the Pacific as well as Nauru. CASSA runs Air Nauru and is at last raking in funds from its only real client, Australia.
At present, staff and skilled tradespeople must be flown in and out. They’re on high wages, tradesmen I met claimed they earned over $5,000 a week. There was no shortage of work for them. The entire infrastructure, communications, water desalination and power of the country are being constantly repaired by Australia. Petrol is being syphoned from UNHCR and IOM vehicles when they are parked, by petrol starved Nauruans. Petrol is rationed or impossible to come by. Banks are mostly not open. Nauru’s wages are not paid.
Nauru is a sick little country, and they can blame us in part for their poor health. I am speaking quite literally. Nauru’s hospital is clogged with detention centre patients. Nauruans must bring a mattress and hope the drugs they need haven’t been used on detainees from Statehouse or Topside. Exactly what was promised wouldn’t happen, does. According to Nauru’s Opposition party leaders, Nauru’s public service is working solely on detention centre matters. None of its own problems get any attention, and to question is enough to warrant dismissal.
Nauru’s law has been distorted and possibly broken by the Australian Government in an effort to evade the laws of our own country. Nauru has a modern constitution which outlaws detention without trial. But in an effort to avoid the contamination of having to host poor persecuted Muslims or Middle Easterners we have built a barricade of laws within our country and a Pacific Solution to surround it.
Mr Ruddock offers Guantanamo Bay as his favourite example of offshore detention by the U.S. By doing so he slyly ties “terrorism” to seeking asylum. Because the detainees in Guantanamo Bay are held on suspicion of terrorism, they are effectively in remand, pre trial. What suspicion can Mr Ruddock lay at the feet of the few hundred suffering in his camps on Nauru? If there was justification for the often used illegal tag, Mr Ruddock would not hesitate to use it. He’d jump at the chance to arrest “unauthorised arrivals” if he could.
We have to listen to Mr Ruddock’s boring false pieties and cautions about our sovereign rights. Mr Ruddock has effectively admitted to my BBC companion that Australia is running the Migration Policy of Nauru. He said that was to protect it from journalists. Recently the lawyers who were working on getting into Nauru have given up. They would win a case in the courts if they were permitted to go, but the result would set the detainees free in Nauru which would only hasten their deportation.
Mr Ruddock could deport them while blaming lawyers. The legal status of the Nauru asylum seekers is even more impossible than those onshore in Australia.
I have seen the refusal letters they receive. They are a few lines, ticks and crosses. For 10 months they have waited for documents which look as though they’ve been composed by kindergarten students. They are insulting.
The detainees were tricked. They were told to only speak about their objections to the Taliban, not to confuse matters or talk ancient history and rejection is their reward. They were told not to speak to anyone about the cruel treatment they received from our defence forces in their rescues and transportation to Nauru. But I have their letters now, and I’ll use them in a report to be sent to various senators and a standing committee on migration and other bodies that could possibly protest the plight of the refugees on Nauru.
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”.
They 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 Hotel Menen, rarely, it seemed, visiting the camps. There were careers to be made and more jobs to anticipate, it all looked so promising.
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.
If I am not allowed to say that Nauru’s camps are concentration camps, I will say that they concentrate depression, they concentrate despair, they concentrate the incredible shrinking loss of power that an asylum seeker experiences.
The people I know in Nauru are in grief. They are beyond rage. Rage implodes inside them and continues to hurt them every day after every day.
In sad conclusion
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, or may visit. 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? What potential in these people have we crushed? What can those beautiful Afghani white mice girls, with their babies, do in Kabul or elsewhere, while their husbands are on temporary protection visas in Australia?
Their deaths are imminent. The children’s are a certainty. Mohammed and Ali and my other friends have told me they would rather die, because to survive in Afghanistan they will have to loot, murder and rob. That is why they left. They couldn’t live with the fact that criminality was the only career they had to look forward to in Afghanistan.
Pashtuns are still killing Hazara. The Mullahs told them they could to go Paradise. The vehicle was Hazara blood. It still is.
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?