Refugees settled on Nauru woke on Monday to find an ominous letter, signed “Youth of Republic of Nauru”, had been delivered overnight. Copies had been left at shops, homes, workplaces employing refugees and a restaurant, as well as at Fly Camp where male refugees are held and at the family camp and houses where young unaccompanied refugees live. Copies were thrown over the detention centre fence, erasing the distinction between recognised refugees settled outside and those still in detention under an agreement between the Australian and Nauru governments.
The distribution of the letter points to an orchestrated campaign, rather than a spontaneous individual act of intimidation.
The letter states:
“… we warn Refugees to Go Away of our country and just to hell with all your concerns if not, get ready for the bad things happening and waiting ahead.
It contains disturbing resentments and accusations:
Our women, girls and daughters are having contact with refugees and having affairs with them and we can never see our women having fun with refugees and neglecting locals.
It warns that:
… we can see clearly in near future refugees will be the leading and ruling people and will make local community people their slaves.
Such charges are characteristic of hate manifestos designed to mobilise communities against targeted groups. They are recognisable as the grievances that historically inform racist propaganda. The aim is to scapegoat and intimidate target groups and incite violence against them with the objective of removing them from the community.
We warn our Corrupt Government as well Australian Government to take away your rubbish (refugees) and leave our country, otherwise there can be worse situations for refugees as you can see these days.
The reference to "rubbish” articulates precisely the logic of ethnic cleansing.
The phrase “as you can see” is a chilling reference to acts of thuggery against unaccompanied juvenile refugees, to whom a particular duty of care is owed. Living on their own in isolated locations, these vulnerable young refugees have reported being harassed, intimidated and physically beaten by groups of men on motorbikes.
These attacks were reported to authorities, including police and Save the Children, which is contracted to care for the refugees.
After seeing the letter, refugees again reported their fears to these authorities. The government has dismissed their concerns. They have not received any guarantees to safeguard their welfare and remain in great fear.
Australia in denial of its responsibility
Nauruan authorities reportedly responded that Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) should be the one to address the refugees’ concerns. Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has already washed his hands of his obligations. His spokesman has stated that any attack on a person settled on Nauru “is wholly a matter for Nauru”.
This is a blatant abrogation of responsibility. In the international context, it demonstrates a total disregard for the spirit of the Refugee Convention. Regionally, it evidences a disturbing indifference to the volatile and increasingly violent conditions that Australian policy has generated in neighbouring states such as Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
By exploiting its political and economic power over former Australian protectorates for domestic political ends, Australia has created conditions that serve to foment unrest with potentially lethal consequences.
The letter states:
… we cannot see and tolerate that Australia Government headache (refugees) [is] making our lives crashing and bringing down to the ground.
In other words, even as the letter scapegoats refugees, it holds Australia responsible for the new elements introduced to “our small and congested community”. It argues that:
Nauru is a conservative country, it is not a multicultural country so resettling refugees means that inducing [sic] culture from different countries and we think that we are never been ready for that.
Detention camps and their social and physical infrastructure – personnel, equipment, environmental features – are visible markers of Australian power. Their imposition compounds the legacy of Australia’s colonial impositions, one of irreversible environmental destruction and serious economic and political damage.
A once welcoming culture poisoned
In diagnosing the nativist sentiment of this letter, we wish to emphasise the dangerous conditions Australia has irresponsibly engendered in a small and vulnerable neighbour. Already disadvantaged, Nauruans are being called upon to assume Australians’ responsibilities. Our failure to fulfil our international obligations to refugees within our own expansive borders and our outsourcing of these to small, resource-poor societies lies at the heart of the ugly and violent sentiments expressed in the letter.
Such sentiments represent an erosion of Pacific communities’ traditional values of hospitality. At a recent Australian Studies conference, colleagues from the region voiced distress at this perversion of core aspects of their societies and cultures. In 2001, when the first asylum seekers landed on Nauru under the Pacific Solution, Nauruans greeted them with a welcome dance. Today Nauru and Australia are both harsher and lesser societies.
The cultivation of nativism in place of values of generosity has taken a disturbing turn on Nauru. Several refugees have expressed the sense that underlying political agendas are driving it: “we are just being kicked around for politics”.
We call on Minister Morrison and DIAC to assume their ethical and legal responsibility to protect unaccompanied minors and other recognised refugees whom the Australian government has placed on Nauru. Australia should immediately reassess a policy that has proved so destructive in its effects, as refugees continue to be resettled in a climate of fear and uncertainty.
The letter campaign is the latest chilling symptom of the toxic effects of Australia’s “no advantage” policy. That it invokes the horrific spectre of ethnic cleansing is an indictment of the great wrong we have perpetrated in our region.