The Australian island that became a living nightmare for refugees and asylum seekers

Sydney Letter: Nauru sits isolated in the Pacific Ocean and hosts a large off-shore detention centre that is more like a humid purgatory

The tiny tropical island of Nauru stands isolated in the Pacific Ocean between Australia and Hawaii. In half an hour you can drive across the whole island. It is one of the world’s least visited places by tourists, yet it is still familiar to most Australians.

Nauru is synonymous with asylum seekers and refugees trying to reach Australia. It holds a large offshore detention centre that became a hot and humid purgatory for those that lived there. There was little real hope of making it to Australia; instead, residents were isolated and trapped in a Kafkaesque system that could last years. The last refugee has finally left Nauru this month, but its legacy and use will still be debated.

The concept of the “fair go” is cherished in the Australian vernacular. It means that if you come to Australia, regardless of your background, you will be given every chance to succeed. This maxim is largely true, and the country’s diverse range of nationalities would reflect its potency. However, the saying has not been extended to refugees or asylum seekers in recent years.

Offshore processing was introduced by the former Australian prime minister John Howard from the Liberal Party in 2001. It was stopped by the Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2008, before being reintroduced by his successor and party colleague Julia Gillard in response to more refugees attempting to arrive in Australia by boat.


Albanese’s government will still pay $350 million (€212 million) annually to keep the offshore processing facility open on the island

Australia’s policy of offshore processing was put under further scrutiny when the Liberal Party’s Tony Abbott took power in 2013. Abbott wanted, in his words, “to stop the boats” and believed firmly that Nauru was a strong bulwark for his policy. He even tried to promote the country. “Nauru is no hellhole by any means. I’ve been there,” he said. “If you like living in the tropics, it’s a very, very pleasant island.”

In 2018, Médecins Sans Frontières spent 11 months on the island, and reported close to one-third of its refugee and asylum seeker patients had attempted suicide. The organisation reported that the mental health suffering it had witnessed and treated was some of the worst it had ever seen. It called its final report from the island “Indefinite Despair.”

The Liberal Party is not ashamed of Nauru. The party wants to be seen as tough on border security and feels Nauru serves its role well. Scott Morrison, its most recent prime minister had a boat-shaped trophy in his office, which said: “I Stopped These”. The current leader of the party and former immigration minister Peter Dutton is seen as even more rigid on border policy than Morrison.

Labor has slowly but surely crept further into the centre since prime minister Anthony Albanese took the top job. Albanese is caught directly in the middle of Parliament House in Canberra. He stands between a Liberal Party that is veering further right under Dutton and the Greens who have been quick to criticise his government for its perceived lack of support for the most vulnerable Australians.

Albanese’s government states that it is “strong on borders without being weak on humanity”. It has moved refugees off of Nauru, but will still pay $350 million (€212 million) annually to keep the offshore processing facility open on the island. “There is no change to Australia’s policies,” a government statement said. “People who attempt to travel to Australia by boat without a valid Australian visa have zero chance of settling in Australia.”

Last year, the Australian National University conducted a poll to ask Australians what were the most pressing election issues. Cost of living unsurprisingly came first, followed by aged care, health and climate change. Surprisingly, borders and immigration came in at a rather lowly 11th place. Albanese has chosen an expensive compromise: remove people from Nauru, but keep funding it to act as a deterrent against people smugglers.

In 1798, British sea captain John Fearn passed Nauru, and named it “Pleasant Island”. He was captivated by its sweeping white sandy beaches and lush vegetation. More than 200 years later, that same beautiful island became a living nightmare for refugees and asylum seekers trying to reach the promised land of Australia.

Albanese as ever, is trying to keep everyone happy and is struggling to do so. He will want to keep Australia’s border policy firm for political optics. Equally, he does not want to lose the humanity that brought him to power over Morrison. Nauru is not a proud chapter in recent Australian history, and Albanese will not be in a hurry to reopen it.