‘Here the word future is not a word’: life as a refugee on Nauru

Nauru is anything but a tropical paradise for the resettled refugees who were originally flown in as asylum seekers. EPA/Rod Henshaw

As the government secretly flew 157 asylum seekers seized at sea to Nauru overnight on Friday, 50 men recognised as refugees and given “temporary protection” to settle on Nauru have issued a statement detailing the unliveable conditions in which they have been placed. They write:

Here the future is not a word. It does not exist.

The men describe serious physical deprivation – insufficient food, lack of access to clean water, insanitary and vermin-infested conditions – combined with intense distress and isolation:

We are living in a camp in the jungle. This is where they ‘resettled’ us. This is no place to live. If we are refugees why are we not living in community? We have no neighbours here. Our ‘neighbours’, our ‘relatives’ are mosquitoes and flies and dogs.

The statement outlines a scene of abandonment and trauma at the appropriately named Fly Camp where they live:

We want to tell you that we are treated here like animals. In a zoo there is different animals from different countries and people go to look at them. Nauru is a zoo. We are just different animals from different countries … People come to visit here and then ask questions then they note it down. But we know from experience that they are doing just paperwork and nothing will happen. They just come to look at us.

Despite having been certified as genuine refugees, the men have been reduced to lives of destitution. They describe the camp as even worse than Australia’s immigration detention centres:

In the IDC … was not good but now, because we have so little money, we cannot have any medical treatment. We cannot buy clean water, clothes, toothpaste, shampoo – the basic needs of life, with so little money.

They lack clean drinking water and proper sanitation facilities:

Drinking water is a basic need for human life. Here the water to drink is not clean. Australia sends good water for the government workers here but tells us to boil bad water. This water makes us sick. We have gastro and we have skin problems.

In the squalor of Camp Fly, the accumulation of septic waste and rubbish breeds vermin and disease:

No-one is responsible for rubbish here. Our rubbish we collect and then we throw into the jungle. Flies and insects cover this rubbish and we know that this is not healthy. Flies are everywhere. No-one is responsible for septic waste here. What are we to do?

Treated as less than human

At the heart of the refugees’ statement is a haunting question:

Why are we treated as less than human? They treat us like we are animal.

Australia’s certified refugees have been left to rot, unseen and unheard, in an isolated cesspit somewhere in Nauru’s jungle.

The intolerable conditions of Fly Camp are compounded by fear. Again and again the men express their apprehension in their isolated and unprotected condition. Their fears are exacerbated by misunderstandings and misrepresentations between them and Nauru locals:

When we had meeting … one of the Nauru government officers was here … We told them, ‘If someone will not listen to us then we will do PEACEFUL PROTEST in front of parliament house.’ We then said: ‘If still no-one will listen to us then we will do some thing wrong to ourselves’ – we will not do anything wrong to the community and we will not do anything wrong to the accommodation.

That Nauru government officer gave message to his government that the refugees are wanting to do something wrong in NAURU – they want to burn Parliament house. That is NOT what we were saying but now, because of that negative message, every Nauru people are abusing us. We are scared.

No Advantage: institutionalised cruelty

Together with the current government’s Operation Sovereign Borders policy, the doctrine of No Advantage provides the core principles that underpin the existence of Fly Camp.

The “No Advantage” policy was rationalised through the humanitarian pretext of prevention: to deter asylum seekers from risking their lives at sea, asylum seekers who had already made it to Australian territorial waters would be dispatched to the deliberately harsh conditions of offshore Pacific camps. Refugee rights advocate Julian Burnside pithily pointed out the absurdity of this logic of deterrence:

… once they have survived the perils of the sea we take them by force to Nauru in order to save them from the risk of drowning.

Marc Isaacs, a young Australian who worked with the Salvation Army on Nauru for over a year, describes the No Advantage Policy in his book The Undesirables:

The intention was clear … Take them to a distant island, lock them away, punish them, forget about them. Criminals were given a sentence to serve; these men were not even given that.

Isaacs clearly identifies that the “purposely underprepared” conditions and squalor of the detention centres on Nauru were designed to induce hopelessness and despair in the arrivals:

Despite the long and arduous forms of their escape from murderous and war-torn countries… detention marks the longest and most treacherous part of their flight for freedom. There were no bombs in Nauru, no guns, no indiscriminate murders. Just waiting, boredom, insomnia, self-harm, suicide attempts, uncertainty … second-guessing, yearning and fear, fear, fear. Their enemies were themselves, their own minds.

Although ostensibly aimed at saving asylum seekers from drowning at sea, it is impossible not to see the regime of transportation to Pacific holding camps as one that deliberately places refugee lives in harm’s way. Whereas people smugglers have no interest in intentionally harming the passengers they ferry to Australia, the state’s trafficking of refugees across borders to detain them in Pacific camps aims to cause them the greatest possible distress, and knowingly exposes them to higher probabilities of risk, violence, abuse and trauma.

Rather than “No Advantage”, the government’s own business model relies on its capacity to inflict maximum disadvantage.

This principle, it is clear, is also extended to those determined to be in genuine need of protection through the process agreed between Australia and Nauru. The legislated violence and trauma that is being inflicted on Australia’s refugees in Nauru’s Camp Fly is exacting its toll. The men write of the physical violence that they have escaped and of the psychological violence that they are enduring:

In our country the Taliban will come onto the bus and they will slash our throat and finish your life. It will take maybe 10 or 15 minutes for us to die. But the English-Australian men are killing us by pain, taking our soul and our life slowly. This is mental torture and soon all of us will be mad. This is too much pain. We need freedom from this torture.

Daily Telegraph front page, August 2. Daily Telegraph

There is no equivocation in this statement: Australia’s policies are inflicting pain and trauma on the very vulnerable and traumatised people it has a duty to care for and protect. The mental torture that these confirmed refugees name and endure, the isolation and lack of adequate facilities in which they are compelled to “live” – all of this is killing them slowly.

On the day that a fresh batch of human cargo, showing clear signs of manhandling and trauma, was delivered to Nauru, the Daily Telegraph offered the 157 asylum seekers, a number of them already recognised refugees, a truly Australian welcome. Its headline read:

G’Day Nauru: Tamil boat people say hello to their new home.

What future awaits these new targets of our pitiless No Advantage system?


The authors were informed on Tuesday night that the refugees of Fly Camp have now been provided with bottled water to drink and that preparations are being made for more toilets to be installed. “We cannot speculate on the reasons, but we are very happy to hear of these small but important improvements to the quality of their lives.”

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