MAC: Mines and Communities

Situation in the 'mined-out' island of Nauru worsens

Published by MAC on 2003-12-19

Nauru: A double blot on Australia

The South Pacific island of Nauru was ruthlessly dug up by the Phosphates Commission, comprising Australia, Britain and New Zealand, at a time when the three were part of the British empire. All but a small portion of the land was made virtually uninhabitable.

The island was also the refuge sought recently by hundreds of asylum seekers whose treatment since, by the Australian government, has outraged human rights campaigners inside and outside the country (not to mention the refugee families themselves)

Asylum seekers in the Nauru Detention camp have just entered their second week of a hunger strike, with 36 people participating. But Australia's Immigration Minister has refused responsibility saying they "are not Australia's problem", despite Australia establishing the detention camp as part of its so-called 'Pacific Solution' for refugee and migration control. Australia also currently holds 90 children under detention in Nauru and worldwide online petitions 'To End Detention of Children and Separation of Families in Australia', have attracted over 45,000 signatures.

The savagest irony is that, even while the asylum seekers are being so outrageously treated, the Nauruans have come to depend on the subsidies provided by Australia for that detention. As these are withdrawn, so the islanders face a lack of basic resources for survival.

Yet, following the compensation they were paid after a settlement in 1968 they became - for a short period - the nation with the highest per capita income n the world. Those funds were splurged in a relatively short period of time - on running a redundant national airline, the world's biggest single fleet of Rolls Royces and a London West End show which bombed shortly after takeover.

Now the Australian government says it might look for another island on which the Nauruans could settle (not likely), grant them Australain citizenship and a portion of Australia itself (not likely either), or simply continue the grant aid.

Thanks for the refugee camps, Nauru, how would you like to be Australian?

By Mark Forbes, Syndey Morning Herald

December 19, 2003

Nadi - Nauru's entire population could be offered Australian citizenship and resettlement under a proposal being developed by the Howard Government.

The Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has ordered his department to draw up options for the future of the tiny island state, which officials believe will not be viable after Australian payments to maintain camps for asylum seekers end.

Offering citizenship to the more than 12,000 Nauruans is one option. Others include granting Nauru an uninhabited Pacific island or a restructuring of its finances and increased long-term Australian help.

Granting Nauruans an island is highly improbable, Mr Downer believes, but he told the Herald that Nauru was confronting difficulties that could not be ignored. "We can't just abandon Nauru. We can't let the 10,000 people in Nauru not have any fresh water or electricity."

Mr Downer doubted that Nauruans could be offered a part of Australia to settle on unless they became citizens. But citizenship was not the most likely option because of Nauruan resistance and the precedent it would set for immigration laws. As well, Nauruans loved their country and did not want to leave.

But Australian officials believe the country is almost unsustainable. It lacks fresh water, vegetables and reliable power and has been kept running only by the $30 million in funding over the past two years to maintain the detention camps as part of the 'Pacific solution'.

Australia administered Nauru until 1968 and would continue to be asked to prop it up. In the long run it would be cheaper to ensure a long-term solution.

The phosphate that once made Nauru's population the world's second-richest is gone, and mining has devastated about 80 per cent of its 21 square kilometres.

The Government identifies Nauru as Australia's next priority in the Pacific after the intervention in the Solomon Islands and the $2.5 billion, five-year rescue for Papua New Guinea.

Officials have been ordered to finalise a proposal for Nauru by the end of January.

Mr Downer said Australia was taking a more robust approach in the Pacific because of the risks of having failed states nearby.

An offer of Australian citizenship would allow Nauruans to gradually leave their island, or stay if they wished. The proposal is also intended to prompt Nauru's Government to face the nation's long-term crisis.

Nauru's President, Rene Harris, volunteered to detain asylum seekers during the 2001 Tampa crisis. About 300 remain, with about 35 on a hunger strike and demanding to be sent to Australia.

Mr Harris obtained the $30 million in Australian assistance in return for hosting the camps over the past two years and Australia wants to extend the agreement for at least another year.

Australia also provides about $3 million in regular annual aid, and will give $2.5 million for the next 10 years in compensation for the phosphate exploitation.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its phosphate bonanza, Nauru has been dogged by instability and corruption. With the added burden of poor investments, it is now effectively bankrupt.

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