The Howard government’s Pacific Solution began in 2001 in the wake of the Tampa crisis. A total of 1637 asylum seekers were dumped on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru. Andrew Bartlett, a Senator for the Democrats at the time and now a member of the Queensland Greens, was one of the few people allowed in to Nauru to visit the camps there.
“A lot of people were refused the right to enter the country”, he told Solidarity. “I’m assuming that because I was a member of parliament they thought they should let me in. I think that there was a deliberate and pre-agreed approach that the Australian government also supported of not letting people visit the island.”
Journalists were banned, and asylum seekers were refused access to lawyers, including Julian Burnside who was refused entry to Nauru until 2006. Even the Australian Human Rights Commissioner was refused access to Nauru when researching his report into children in detention, being told it was outside his jurisdiction.
“I visited Nauru four times in all, the first time was not until mid-2003, well after 18 months after the place had been set up”, said Bartlett.
“The first time I visited there were still over half a thousand [asylum seekers] and quite a few children, some of them using long houses, just a structure with a floor and open walls. There were pretty poor conditions as regards to the ablution blocks, the extent of and adequacy of the food and the support mechanisms.”
“That is all part and parcel of the approach of the government at the time to try and make people’s experience as unpleasant as possible in the hope they’d give up and go home.
“Over time particularly after the hunger strike at the end of 2003, there was a stepping up in the conditions. And what was more important claims were reassessed as a result of that hunger strike.”
Basic services non-existent
The isolation of Nauru, its population of only 10,000 and its poverty means basic services are almost completely lacking. “There’s always problems with specialist medical support because there’s nothing of that sort, not even a regular dentist on Nauru. Obviously psychiatric and mental health expertise was in permanent demand.”
Under the Howard government, the average stay on Nauru was 501 days, but the last detainees had waited five years when Nauru was finally closed. The long periods of uncertainty created a mental health disaster among detainees. After just over a year in the job, Dr Martin Dormaar, the chief psychiatrist on Nauru, quit, labelling the camp “a psychiatrist’s nightmare”. His regular appeals for increased support had gone unheeded.
The island’s single desalination plant is broken down much of the time, meaning that toilets cannot be flushed. Bottled water has to be brought in for drinking. “The camps were the only place in the island that had reliable power. Nauru is a pretty dilapidated place, a next to bankrupt economy and incredibly expensive to get food products and medical specialists to.”
Practically all food has to be brought in because the island, much of which is barren, was dug up to mine phosphorus. “It’s right on the equator, hot and humid all year round. It’s not even a nice island, most of it’s broken coral and rock.”
“The isolation as well I think will be a very big issue this time around”, Bartlett said. “Even [to deliver] education they’ll need to bring in teachers. The second time I went there the teachers hadn’t been paid for months because the country was basically bankrupt.”
“Apart from when Kate Durham and a BBC person visited without giving notice, I was basically the first person that visited that wasn’t an official of some sort, to listen to them about what they were experiencing.
“I wanted to give them some comfort that there were people fighting for their rights back in Australia.
“The third and fourth times [I visited], although [by then] asylum seekers were allowed out on the island, and some of them were helping out in schools to keep themselves occupied, the despair is very well documented. Once people are in conditions like that people are mentally traumatised by the fear and uncertainty about their future.
“The last couple of visits was pretty traumatic for me even, so I can’t imagine what it was like for them.”
With asylum seekers again facing the prospect of years languishing in the Pacific, the story of the Pacific Solution last time shows why it needs to be closed for good.