Australia is now paying $750,000 a day to a notorious US private prisons operator to keep the remaining 100 or so asylum seekers in conditions that are slowing destroying their mental and physical health. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
The people left behind on Nauru
For Mamoud, this period is a melancholy twilight. The Nauru detention camp is empty now – though still expensively maintained – and the island’s population of refugees and asylum seekers has greatly reduced. Their numbers were once well over a thousand; today there are a little more than a hundred.
Many have been relocated to the United States, in a deal made with the Obama administration and then, eventually and reluctantly, upheld by Donald Trump after he was persuaded by Malcolm Turnbull. Some have been transferred to Australia for acute medical care. Some have died.
Those remaining live in the community now. All arrived as single men. Mamoud is one of the last. He’s lost count of his trips to the airport to farewell friends. “I go to airport for many goodbyes,” Mamoud says. “It is sad, but I know my day will come. But then, I will say goodbye to friends. So I will not be full happy.”
Mamoud has lived in Nauru for nine years now. His journey is a familiarly punishing one. In 2012, he fled tribal warfare in his home country of Somalia. He says he feared both conscription and the fatal consequences of refusing.
“My area have some tribe problem,” he says. “We fight always together. Some people die. Your tribe force you to fight. If you do not fight, they will kill you. If I stayed there – this area – maybe I die. And also, family die because of small sickness like malaria or TB. We have no hospitals. When women make baby, many die. Plenty of my family die like that.”
In 2012, Mamoud’s preferred destination was Italy, but he says a local people smuggler told him Australia was the better – and easier – option. He agreed. From Somalia, Mamoud travelled to Kenya. Then Dubai. From Dubai to Jakarta, then a bus and plane trip to Makassar and, finally, a night drive to a remote jetty – the staging point for their boat. Their destination was Darwin.
“We were at sea for nine days,” Mamoud says. “It was very hard. People were sick. At night water come into the boat. There were women and children and it was very bad.”
The Australian Navy intercepted their boat in November 2012, and transferred them to Christmas Island. From there, Mamoud was relocated to Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea, and then to Nauru’s regional processing centre (RPC).
Almost a decade has now passed. He had never expected to be here this long. Mamoud says the island is peaceful and he enjoys freedom. He works as a security guard, a job that pays $2.50 an hour, some of which he sends home. He has some friends remaining. But Mamoud says he struggles with type 2 diabetes and grave mental health problems. He also suffers, he says, from the uncertainty.
“If I had choice, I not go to Australia,” Mamoud says. “Now I feel like I die. My mental health is very bad. Nine years is not easy. I have very low power. Before, I have energy to make life. Why me I’m waiting until now? This question is very mentally problem for me. I make no problems in Nauru…
“When we first come, we taste some freedom. Christmas Island was like prison. Nauru we had good food. But after three or four months, we feel boredom. We just stay in our tents. People mentally change. If I know I stay for long time, I go to school and make my English good. But we don’t know. We don’t make anything. If they tell us five years, or nine years, you make something. Australia play with our humanity. We don’t know what we do. We don’t have long vision for our life.”
The first version of the Nauruan camp was established in 2001, as a central part of John Howard’s “Pacific Solution” – a policy of offshore processing and detention intended to discourage people smugglers and boat arrivals. In 2007, Kevin Rudd pledged that “Labor will end the Pacific Solution, the so-called Pacific Solution, the processing and detaining of asylum seekers on Pacific islands, because it is costly, unsustainable and wrong as a matter of principle.”
Having won the federal election, Rudd closed the Nauruan camp in 2008 – something that Nauruan officials, involved in its first establishment, tell me left a “bitter taste in mouths”. “They left without a proper handover,” they say. “Nauruans didn’t like that.”
Four years later, Julia Gillard, following a resurgence of boat arrivals and the ruthlessly effective use of this fact by then opposition leader Tony Abbott, re-opened the camp and embraced the policy of deterrence through offshore detention. A decade later, its use is no longer a point of contest between the two major parties – it remains a central plank of each of their border protection policies.
The camp inspired condemnation from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the appalled judgements of visiting psychologists, several unflattering parliamentary inquiries, leaked departmental documents outlining the preponderance of abused kids, several reports of suicidal children and the government’s interference with their medical evacuations, and the defamation by Scott Morrison of Australian teachers working there.
There has also been a frustrating opacity about the funding of the camp, which has proved profitable for the most recent provider. Canstruct Group, a Queensland company and donor to the Liberal Party, ran the camp from 2017 until its contract was terminated by the new Labor government this year. The accumulated tender – which was frequently amended – amounted to $1.82 billion over those five years, and the cost of running the camp in recent years remained relatively consistent, despite both the numbers of detainees and the provision of services significantly decreasing.
Last month, the Albanese government offered a transitional contract of 62 days to a private American prison operator, Management and Training Corporation, a company that has been accused of “gross negligence” in US courts. For “garrison and welfare services”, the company will be paid more than $750,000 a day for the two months.
“I held the view that Nauru had a role to play,” a Nauruan official tells me of his opinion when John Howard first established the camp. “You can’t separate people-smuggling from illegal arrivals. Their mode of operation is boats. We’re a small player in all of this co-ordination to combat people-smuggling in the region. Whatever arrangement is in place must be a humanitarian one. But now we have a prison management company running it. That’s not how we envisaged it. These people aren’t criminals; they’re seeking asylum.”
The political cost of closing the camp, for both major parties, is calculated as much higher than any financial cost. And so Labor has pledged to maintain what is referred to as an “enduring regional offshore capability”. That it’s effectively empty is beside the point: it serves principally as a deterrent.
Nauruan locals tell me they can’t see much for all the years of Australian largesse. The country has the dubious distinction of offering the world a notorious case study for state greed and profligacy: its abundance of phosphate made the country one of the world’s wealthiest on a per capita basis in the 1980s, before a series of reckless investments and conspicuous waste returned the island to financial precarity.
“It’s history repeating,” a local tells The Saturday Paper. “Nauru was brought to its knees by poor management of funds and investment decisions. It crippled our country. But with the funds from the RPC, we were given a second chance. It was almost equal to the phosphate income of the ’70s.
“The government had an opportunity to do things right: it was a windfall. Unfortunately, we’re repeating the same things. Government aren’t investing it properly. They’re splurging on things that are non-developmental, short-sighted, flashy. Fireworks, chartered planes taking voters overseas. It’s like a merry-go-round.
“We haven’t heeded our lessons. The general impression is that a lot of money comes through, but we can’t see the value of it. The main infrastructure projects, like a huge solar farm installed at topsite and a new port – that’s ADB [Asian Development Bank] money, not from the RPC funds. There’s no new schools, no new roads. There is a new prison. Indoor sports complex was built by Australian Aid money. Refurbishments to police station, that’s Australian Aid again. The guesstimate is billions of dollars. Nauru government has spent a billion dollars in last six, seven, eight years – but I don’t see it.”
Meanwhile, Mamoud waits.
He’s now eligible for relocation to New Zealand, he’s told. But he’s not sure when. He’s had his interview but he’s profoundly tired and aware of the risks of dashed hope. “I don’t blame Nauru people or government,” he says. “They give us opportunity for job. The Australian government make this situation.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 12, 2022 as "Twilight on Nauru".
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