“Where is reality? … It is something dark and dramatic that is present but cannot be grasped for it has no visible form and, therefore, can be neither described nor represented. Reality … is not to be found in description but in a certain underlying mood. It mysteriously appears when bidden by a call of the political order. Once that summons is made, reality appears.”
— José María Moreno Galván (Spanish art critic, 1958)
I don’t have words for this. For what is happening on Nauru. Nauru, this blighted rock, this ecological and political catastrophe, is a microcosm of the whole world. What is happening there is really what is happening everywhere. I don’t know how to draw out the dark, dramatic reality by making an adequate call of the political order because it is truly unspeakable. Still, I want to bring out a glimpse of what is happening to humanity by trying to dig out the dark madness of a rock in the Pacific which was once known as Pleasant Island.
“What kind of people are these?” asked a refugee boy who was beaten up by Nauruans, denizens of an island which makes a living from the refugee business. The underlying mood of his question addresses people like the Nobel Peace laureate Barack Obama who, in 2015 alone, oversaw the dropping of 23,144-bombs on Muslim majority countries in a war against something named “terror”. Originally called a humanitarian intervention, this orgy of bombs had created some sixty million refugees and internally displaced people by 2014. It’s hard enough to get your head around the sleight of hand between beneficence and terror, or the Nobel laureate’s facile tears for victims of America’s gun laws but not for those of its bombs. But where are the words to describe the individual and collective pain of sixty million people? The loss of relatives, loved ones, human rights, freedom and dignity? What about the deep and long-lasting effects on mental health, especially among children?
Our hearts might break, just thinking about it. But the perpetrators don’t worry about that. They have a simple solution: blame and punish the victims. Nauru is an isolated island but not an isolated case. If I seem to be picking on Australia and its hell-hole of a concentration camp of Nauru, it’s only because it’s so representative of what is happening on a worldwide scale, of something putrid at the heart of humanity, the same humanity that produced a Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirming in its Article 14 that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
So why are refugees – the people who most need understanding, succour, kindness and respect for their human rights and dignity after the horrors they have fled – being criminalised and punished by the very states which reduced them to refugee status in the first place? (Of course this latter accusation needs justifying but I’m not writing an academic treatise here.) This is the political question that needs to be dragged from the depths of a grotesque, indescribable reality. Why do powerful people treat vulnerable people with such cruelty? What kind of people are these? How can these purveyors of suffering and terror say they are combatting the selfsame things? Next question, the one they want to smother before it’s even uttered: how to stop this? If we want to stop the unimaginable greed and lust for power such as we now see in Davos, and the antidemocratic, antihuman world that builds, we have our work cut out. But it’s decent work, human work, bearing within it the seeds of a certain kind of happiness, as someone as un-naive as Yanis Varoufakis testifies.
Our symbol of dark forces, the Republic of Nauru, a very hot, humid and isolated former Australian protectorate of ten thousand inhabitants spread over twenty-one square kilometres, close to the equator, and once a resting point for migratory birds was, not so long ago, immensely rich, with the world’s highest per capita GNP. Its wealth came from bird droppings, phosphate of lime, a highly prized fertiliser, the ravaging of which left behind an infertile rock, an ecological disaster with a corrupt government which then tried its hand at money laundering for a while. Since 2001 it has been almost totally dependent on aid from Australia. The quid pro quo is that the rogue state of Nauru is now Australia’s dumping ground for refugees, mainly from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. This “offshore processing” represents 20% of the island’s revenue, $25.9 million in “development assistance” in 2015-16. Since this “development” is a moot question and “isolated processing” of people is a sinister concept, journalists have been discouraged from entering Nauru since 2014 or, at best, they have to pay a fee of $8,000 (non-refundable if the permit is refused). A shit-based brief heyday of rapacious wealth, ecological catastrophe, corrupt government, post-colonial domination, extreme cruelty to vulnerable human beings, press ban, this is the political order of the remote island of Nauru. But where is reality? Only on Nauru? How much of the “civilised” world fits the model?
There is no guano left to process so Nauru “processes” another kind of waste product, victims of other people’s wars and Australia’s policy of indefinite mandatory detention of always presumed-guilty “aliens”, which began with the Keating Labour government in 1994 and continued through Liberal and Labour governments to the present day. The underlying mood is that boat-borne refugees are “prima facie unfit to live freely in the community. By 2013 Australia had ten operational detention facilities, most in remote onshore places. In July 2013, the government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with its former protectorates Papua New Guinea and Nauru, whereby refugees would be transferred to facilities in their territories. Hence, refugees arriving before 19 July 2013 are detained in Australia, whilst those arriving after that date are subject to mandatory removal to detention centres on Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
How did refugees become “unfit” to live among Australians? There’s a clue in the language. In the 1970s they were “boat people” and, since many were fleeing the “yellow peril” of communism, they were more or less welcome. (Of course nobody stopped to think about what the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet boat people had done to Australia’s First People, approximately 750,000 in this purported terra nullius, which was actually home to some 400 different nations.) Adding the adjective “illegal” after the 1990s made it possible to enforce punitive policies against the now-villains who were “swarming” in by boat. They were “potential terrorists”, part of the “people smuggling trade”, “economic migrants” and even “queue jumpers”, although, given Australia’s eagerness to help refugees, it would have taken 178 years to reach the head of the queue. Asylum is no longer a matter of humanitarian responsibility or international legal obligations. It is a threat to national security. Refugees are automatically guilty and have no rights, even if Australia has pledged in international covenants that they have the same rights as the most eminent Australian citizens.
But systematic, government-orchestrated violation of the rights of a particular group of people is a crime against humanity and must be kept secret. After the Department of Immigration and Border Protection had tried to cover up medical evidence of serious psychological disorders among children in detention, including cases where children had swallowed poisons and routinely banged their heads against walls in alarming self-harming episodes, the Australian Border Force Bill was passed in May 2015 with the aim of criminalising disclosure concerning conditions on the island by doctors, teachers and other personnel. If they speak out about human rights violations in immigration detention centres, they are liable to a two-year prison sentence. The law is perverse, to say the least, because anyone who witnesses child abuse in Australia is legally bound to report it to the authorities, but a person reporting abuse in an Australian detention centre is committing a punishable offence. This means that, for the Australian government, refugees have no rights and anyone who says they do and who tries to protect them is a criminal.
In official practice, the Border Force Act means further militarisation of the Immigration Department, which operates as a kind of paramilitary organisation with its own ships, planes and uniforms. And now, with a twist so perverted that the underlying mood begs description (or maybe The First Dog on the Moon comes close), the Department has minted $1.3 million worth of medals in no less than eight categories: Bravery, Conspicuous Conduct, Leadership, Excellence, Innovation, Work Health and Safety, Diversity, and Operations. What kind of people are these?
The Nauru centre, which costs Australia $37 million per month, is managed and run by the Secretary of the Nauruan Department of Justice and Border Control with support from service providers. David Adeang, the Justice Minister of Nauru who is ultimately responsible for the refugees, is the perfect person for the job by Border Control standards. After his wife burned to death on her front lawn all evidence was destroyed or discarded and the coroner was kicked off the island. The police claimed to be too afraid to investigate. There are also serious corruption and treason allegations against him and Nauru’s president, Baron Waqa. The state has banned Facebook, exiled MPs for insulting the President and has draconian laws to stifle free speech. Conditions on Nauru are so infamous that one nurse broke a gag agreement and compared it to a concentration camp but, she added, “… Australians don’t have the guts to kill these people and put them out of their misery. Because miserable it is.”
In October 2015, three years after the first refugee was incarcerated on Nauru and less than two days before the Australian High Court was to hear a challenge to the legality of the fact that the government was “underwriting and actively participating in the detention of people in other countries”, it was announced that the Regional Processing Centre was now a full-time “open centre”, meaning that all the approximately 600 asylum seekers including 87 children could move “at will” around a slightly larger and very dangerous prison. Refugee children, who now have to attend a Nauruan school, have been urinated on, sexually harassed, threatened with knives, sworn at, beaten, bullied by teachers and students alike.
I can’t give a tidy account of daily life for the unjustly detained refugees on Nauru. It can only be portrayed as a jumble. No privacy, nothing to do, almost no education, almost no health and mental health care, crying, 11-year-old boy says “Stay too long, make myself die, whimpering, Sri Lankan detainee climbs a tree and threatens to jump and kill himself, arrested, Iranian man climbs a crane with a banner saying “World: Kids in Nauru Need Help”, arrested, Transfield Services receives 67 allegations of child abuse, 30 of which accused members of staff, weeping, members of Wilson security services record sex acts with refugees, rape, screaming, 253 cases of “actual self-harm” between September 2012 and April 2015, children stitch their lips in protest, wailing, baby with typhus, more rapes, marijuana traded by guards for sexual favours, child detainee raped by another minor, Transfield receives 22 sexual assault and rape claims in one month (July 2015), pleading, more rapes, five year old girl with post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple acts of self-harm, extreme anxiety “pervasive throughout all areas of her life”, yells of pain, asylum seeker sexually assaults four girls, moved into isolation with eight-year-old daughter, mouldy, leaky tents, no cooling system, cockroaches, cramped, hot and unhygienic dormitories, filthy toilets, limited access to water, low-quality clothing and footwear, lamenting, Nauru police confiscate phones and laptops from Save the Children Staff, a Somali woman, whose family had been killed in a rocket attack in Somalia raped in August by two men and left pregnant, and she was denied medical counselling and an abortion in Australia, begging for help, secretly flown back to Nauru by chartered jet physical and mental health jeopardised, pleading, finally returned to Australia for medical treatment after public protest, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton says, Australia will not be blackmailed by pregnant asylum seekers, more rapes, shrieking, women afraid to report sexual assaults, fear, a lot of fear, attempted suicides, groaning, torture is common, guards brag about waterboarding refugees, guards with no more training than night-club bouncers with lethal powers, women have to ask guards for tampons, prison controls personal hygiene, women and girls denied clean underwear, more rapes, guard-controlled limited access to clean water, male guards in female shower blocks, guards make sexual advances on under-aged girls, terrified silence, “inappropriate sexualised behaviour” of children as young as five”, strip searches, hunger strike, moaning, parents catch a man sexually assaulting their six-year-old daughter, Nauru officials take no action, children say “Australian government uses us for hostage, for stopping the boat. We are children, not policy matters”, tears tears tears, Save the Children staff banished from Nauru” accused of coaching asylum seekers to manufacture situations where evidence could be obtained to pursue a “political agenda” in Australia. A political agenda to stop a crime against humanity.
The underlying dark reality lies not in description but in a generalised underlying mood which children summon up with their letters and drawings. The call is made, reality appears, the politics of it all appears in those drawings. It’s the GOVERNMENT that’s doing this. It’s dressing up in uniform and giving itself medals for doing this. How is this possible? When 62 billionaires have more wealth than half the world’s population, anything, any crime against humanity is possible. The only way to fight back is by fighting for and with our humanity, everyone’s humanity, fighting for the human rights that refugee-creating-and- abusing governments have hypocritically signed up for.