The day the Nauru centre was closed

Five years ago, Immigration Minister Chris Evans announced the last of the refugees detained on Nauru would be leaving the offshore processing centre to be resettled in Australia. Greg Dyett looks at what unfolded.

Five years ago, refugee advocates applauded an announcement that symbolised the end of the Howard Government's Pacific Solution.

This is a transcript from SBS World News Australia Radio.

In the years before Kevin Rudd led Labor to victory in 2007, the Labor Party had made it abundantly clear it opposed offshore processing.

"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."

On February 8th, 2008, Immigration Minister Chris Evans issued a media release saying the Government had started discussions with Nauru about closing the centre.

"The Rudd Government pledged to dismantle the Pacific Solution, and we have moved quickly on that front. The Pacific Solution was a cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful exercise introduced on the eve of a federal election by the Howard Government."

That had been back in 2001, when the Howard Government refused to process Afghan refugees rescued by the Norwegian freighter the Tampa.

Instead, the Howard Government entered into an agreement with Nauru to process asylum seekers at two detention camps set up on the small island nation.

The media was prevented from filming on Nauru, but, in August 2002, the BBC sent a reporter to the island, and covert filming took place.

The result was a documentary never shown on Australian television, called Australia's Pacific Solution.

"Australia was not going to take the Tampa asylum seekers. The Pacific Solution was a deal which effectively sold them to the tiny, near bankrupt island of Nauru, two-and-a-half thousand miles from Christmas Island, in return for a downpayment of 30 million dollars."

BBC reporter Sarah McDonald travelled to Nauru with Melbourne artist and refugee activist Kate Durham.

Ms Durham says she was appalled at what she saw.

"It doesn't have a water supply. It has no sanitation. There was a lot of resentment, to start with, from the Nauruans about having this dumpload of people dumped on its dump of an island. It made them feel even more inferior than they had before. And their hospitals were filling up with the mentally ill. It was a terrible scene. And what I saw there was extremely distressing. And there were children with eye conditions, the toilets were indescribable. It wasn't a place to take people on any, on any, grounds."

An Afghan refugee who wants to be called Alex spent almost four years on Nauru.

He says many of his fellow detainees were heavily medicated.

"I was suggested to take it, but I didn't take it personally myself. But, yes, I have witnessed people who were taking sleeping pills just to get through the day, to sleep at night, because there was lots of pressure on them, in regards to thinking a lot. We are human beings, and, when we think a lot, we don't feel like to sleep."

Refugee activists celebrated the closure of Nauru back in 2008.

Human-rights lawyer David Manne told The Age newspaper in Melbourne:

"The Pacific Solution was clearly characterised by scandalous abuse and cruel indifference. This is an important, decisive and decent step."

Refugee Council of Australia chief executive Paul Power issued a media release expressing his hope that the Pacific Solution would never be revisited.

"Following the resettlement of all refugees from the island detention centre to Australia, the closing of the offshore processing facility represents the next step along the path to what will hopefully be the full dismantling of the Pacific Solution."

Now, five years on, asylum seekers are once again on Nauru.

It comes after the Federal Government accepted a recommendation from an expert panel to restore offshore processing.

Last year, SBS reporter Jeanette Francis travelled to Nauru and did her best to get around the restrictions placed on the media by speaking to detainees on a mobile phone.

"Okay, what would you like to tell the Australian people, the Australian media and the politicians? ... I do my best to hear and relay what he's saying to the camera, but my phone is possibly the cheapest on the island and has no speaker ... 'Please don't put 400 people in Nauru, because this place is like hell.'"

A nurse who spent three weeks on Nauru last November has matched that description.

Marianne Evers told the ABC she compares the centre to a concentration camp.

She says she witnessed four hangings on the island.

"I actually liken it to a concentration camp, but the Australians don't have the guts to kill these people and put them out of their misery. Because miserable, it is."

Immigration Department spokesman Sandi Logan says such a comparison is appalling.

"I think invoking concentration camp is a disgrace, to be quite honest with you. I don't think anyone should be throwing terms like concentration camp around with such abandon. Look, we understand that the temporary facility, part of which is transitioning to permanent facility, at the Nauru regional processing centre is in a country that is hot, that is humid, but the level of care that is being provided for the 450 men currently there is a very good level of care, and it is important that we recognise this is consistent with the policy that the Government has announced around no advantage."

Ms Evers also raised allegations of gang rapes taking place on Nauru.

Newly appointed immigration minister Brendan O'Connor has promised a thorough investigation.

Source: SBS

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