The Mythologies of the Nauruan Refugee Nation

The Republic of Nauru has been occupying a prominent place in the international news lately. Just over a week ago, the small nation state found itself at the center of another global media frenzy with the Guardian Australia’s “exclusive Nauru Files leaks.” With a catalogue of over 2000 filed incident reports, Nauru’s offshore refugee operations were characterized as an exceptionality, “a dark, wretched Truman Show without the cameras”, rife with “horrible mistreatment,” “squalor,” “trauma and self-harm.” Media outlets and spokespeople around the world have taken up this narrative, stressing the brutal conditions for refugees through humanitarian tropes of refugee suffering. Others have levelled anti-civilizational accusations on Nauruans as “savages” and “cannibals,” claiming that the nation is outside the rule of law and international oversight. Given the lack of research conducted in Nauru or from industry outliers, it is unsurprising that this is the dominant perspective.

From May to July 2015, I conducted three months of research fieldwork on the 21km2 nation of Nauru, as part of a much wider fifteen-month research project into the transnational refugee industry. The project took me from Oxford to Geneva, across Europe and the Asia Pacific as I explored how the refugee has become a booming business and trade. Underneath the suffering mythologies, Nauru is in reality a refugee company town in nation. From an economy derived from phosphate extraction before, refugees now constitute the nation’s capitalist economy. Anyone who makes their way by boat to Australia and uses the Geneva Convention claim upon interception is sent to Nauru or Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island for refugee processing and resettlement. The majority of people take a boat from Indonesia or Sri Lanka hailing from provenances that span Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and beyond.

A powerful assemblage of industry personnel from Australian bureaucrats to lawyers, social workers, security recruits, doctors, judges, academics and more facilitate the production and management of people as refugees. Except for the odd superficial, low-rung positions and subcontracts, the Australian government, its commercial firms and NGOs effectively run Nauru’s refugee operations to the financial advantage of Nauru and capitalist industry. Australian officials hold Nauruan government positions to administer the nation’s refugee system in the Australian image. Fly-in fly-out workforces of UN, Red Cross and international oversight bodies all help regulate Nauru to almost farcical extent. Protestations of “horrible mistreatment,” “squalor,” “trauma and self-harm” are starkly inaccurate. World Refugee Days, flat screen TVs, mobile phones and flown in epicurean cuisine are something of the realities of life on Nauru. Excessive expenditures keep the billion-dollar op going for the sake of a mere 1,355 people. But the offshore project is a bipartisan political vote-winner. The current Liberal Coalition party does not shirk on expense. Ludicrous carrot sticks dangle in front of Australian Immigration Department-certified refugees. Under an AU$40 million government deal, all expenses paid resettlement is available in Phnom Penh. A mansion, full health care coverage, business start up and even additional luggage allowance all included at a cost of AU$5 million a pop. But the refugees of Nauru operate in standoff with the Australian government. All direct their end goals to Australia, resisting these temptations. Instead, many use the emotive sway of images and narratives of refugee suffering to advance their cause.

The Australian pro refugee movement plays a powerful role in this regard, helping choreograph a world of refugee degradation. From the Homid and Hadon immolations to the Baby Asha scandal, the Nauru Processing Centre riot of July 2013, and a litany of “exposes” of alleged Nauru refugee waterboarding and sexual abuse, to which the “Nauru Files leaks” is added, there is no shortage of coverage of refugee suffering on Nauru. Most of these tragedies are endemic to the confinement and governance of people. Some are desperate public relations attempts for movement elsewhere. All are promoted as evidence of the need to “welcome refugees” to Australia through civilizational discourses of “first world” superiority and Nauruan barbarity.

The goal of “Nauru Leaks” style campaigns is to galvanize pro refugee sympathy and leverage for people’s legalization in Australia. But it is a woefully misguided endeavor that faces a brick wall of fear and contempt. Trump-style attacks against refugees find scapegoating appeal the world over, entangled in orientalizing marketing representations of refugees as others. Familiar public concerns of job loss, preferential treatment and dilution of national identity combine with fears of national security and state border infiltration. Emotive pro refugee campaigns merely fuel the compassion fatigue and industry capital that makes places like Nauru into absurdist refugee nations in the first place. I held out from writing this article in the flimsy hope that things might just turn out differently. Yet it comes as little surprise that just this weekend the Australian government announced that public support of Nauru holds strong, even if behind-the-scenes most in government shake their heads thinking otherwise.

Neither does the stereotype of island cannibalism hold any weight. Nauru has a postcolonial heritage going back over 150 years. This is a country that had the world’s second highest GDP in the 1970s. They bankrolled a flopped West End musical, imported Ferraris and Mini Coopers, owned prime real estate in downtown Melbourne and a NASA-rented building in Houston. Many of the population are educated in Australia and Fiji, highly literate and articulate. There’s a doctorate from Cambridge, others fluent in Taiwanese; all are broadband connected. None are running after refugees on the streets with machetes. Any tensions that have erupted on Nauru have been the cause of publicity campaigns like the “Nauru Files leaks.” Similarly, fear of refugees as “terrorist threats” and “culturally different” also injects into Nauruans’ concerns, stemming from global representations of refugees. In reality, the majority of Nauruans are scared of approaching refugees. Most are fearful of what refugees might do to attract global attention to their cause. Some are angry at the diatribe targeted at their nation, similarly concerned for refugees’ welfare, as much as economically reliant on their presence. The Nauruan government has certainly not made the best industry choice for capitalist resurgence. But like guano for phosphate for fertilizer before, their newest industry in humans to refugees finds operational clout the world over. UNHCR’s budget hit US$7 billion in 2015 alone.

Certainly people should have the ability to move without hindrance, not least Nauru’s refugees. I would never stress otherwise and understand the rationale behind such refugee suffering campaigns. But this is not the reality of the refugee system. Refugees might generate a feel-good belief and financial revenue for many but for others it is not so ideal. The refugee visa process is humiliating, depending on proof of persecution for a visa. Proof of refugeeness extends from recounting stories of trauma to obtaining medical certifications through displays of bodily scarification. In many countries it is conducted from securitized or new wave community detention facilities. If made into a refugee, people do not often have freedom to choose their destination or easily move between countries. It is by this token that Nauru comes into being as a “third country resettlement” state. The majority of individuals are chosen for state refugee acceptance on the basis of their utility as units of human capital (families, vulnerabilities, “good workers”) or as ideological pawns for furthering military interventions (Syrians, Afghanis, Communists before). This is unless a person has in country connections or crosses a state border and makes a refugee protestation, as is the case with those sent to Nauru. The latter is an increasingly difficult prospect with excessive state border frontiering and the making of dystopic fairylands like Nauru.

Farcically it is more frontiering and war and the refugee system that in turn propagates more people as refugees, resulting in a never-ending refugee parthenogenesis. Increased immigration controls lead more people into using the refugee refrain. Amid hardening borders, there is little visa possibility otherwise with accusations of “economic migrancy.” Greater military interventions drive more people into moving as refugees. Many people do not want to be refugees, even as for others it has become their only means of moving elsewhere. But government refugee acceptance is upheld as an emblem of democratic pride. It is also a powerful ideological tool for legitimizing foreign military interventions in places like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, cyclically making more people into refugees.

If the Guardian and others genuinely want to further their close Nauru campaign they would do better to take a reverse tack. They should highlight the inequalities of the refugee system that makes Vonnegut dystopias like the Nauru refugee nation: the infantilizing NGO-led “Nauru multicultural days,” the refugee music projects and film festivals, all Australian taxpayer funded to accustom Nauruans to refugees. They should highlight the funding of refugee-run beauty salons, restaurants and takeaway delivery services, all paid for to implant people into life on Nauru. The majority of these establishments just cater to the workforces contracted from Australia to manage them. Highly skilled and hard working real live people wile their days painting henna patterns up refugee workers’ arms when they could be elsewhere at far less an expense (it’s a AU$859,363 a person a day industry). Most of my time in the twilight zone of Nauru was spent thinking, “You have got to be kidding me.” These were also the thoughts of many people certified or awaiting their refugee status, who rolled their eyes and muttered to me, “Seriously!?” I was often saddened at the taxpayer funded meditation, yoga and aerobics classes led by Australian workers to help everyone cope from one day to the next in Nauru.

The very goal of the Nauru offshore project is a presentation of cruelty and deterrence. Campaigns like the Guardian’s play into this spectacle. It is certainly not the reality. The Australian government, like others, continues to spend absurd amounts on border enforcement (AU$957.9 million in 2014-15 alone) to deter the many people who heed little the theatricality of authoritarianism. Campaigns like Nauru refugee suffering backfire on themselves. What we hear are tales of eternal misery and the need to rescue more refugees through the hand of democratic benevolence. This only leads to a recursive chain of compassion fatigue, anger and fear, not to mention unending refugee creation.