Shopping Cart


Not Our Problem? Face to Face with Asylum Seekers (part 2)

Tuesday, 6 August 2013  | Greg Lake

All I expected to find was a desolate, trashed island that had been mined to oblivion by the locals who, now that the phosphate had run out, made their way through life trying to turn a quick buck by ripping off anyone and everyone they could. Corrupt in every way.

The reality on Nauru couldn't be further from the truth. While the centre of the island was little more than a wasteland of 'pinnacles' (the leftover pillars of rock that mark the site of a concluded mining operation), the edges of this circular island looked more like a tropical paradise. Coral, colourful fish, sandy beaches and palm trees were aplenty. The locals were a wonderful, gentle and friendly people who seemed set on convincing you that Nauru truly did deserve its original name - Pleasant Island.

It is true that phosphate mining has basically destroyed the economy of the island. While times were good, the island enjoyed immense wealth and prosperity. Ferraris and Rolls Royces were a common sight on Nauru. When the phosphate started to run out, a couple of corrupt presidents continued to borrow money to feed the country's spending habits, pocketing a large portion for themselves. The island's population didn't find out about the borrowing until many years later.

When crunch time came and there was no more phosphate or money left, there was an uprising that ended in widespread riots. Many Public buildings were destroyed, including the president's mansion on the top of the island. All that remains of that building today is a burned-out shell with an amazing view.

With no future in phosphate, a population of over 10,000 people, infrastructure that is deteriorating fast and hardly any money, the Nauruan population is almost entirely reliant on Australian government aid. In fact, Nauru receives more Australian aid money per person than any other country in the world - at a figure of around $3,600 per head. (The next on that list is the Solomon Islands at $380 per person).  To put that in perspective, a good government salary for a well-paid job on Nauru pays around $5,000 per year.

In some ways, despite its beauty and the good nature of its people, Nauru is like a modern day Easter Island - a failed state that only still exists because of the cash thrown at it by the Australians.

So when the Australian government offers a large cash injection to up a Regional Processing Centre (RPC) on the island, the Nauruan government really doesn't have a choice but to accept.

Shortly after the then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, announced that the government would accept, in principle, all 22 recommendations of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers (chaired by Air Marshal Angus Houston), I was appointed to the position of Director of Regional Processing Operations.  The role was basically set up to coordinate all operational elements of the Regional Processing Centres on Manus and Nauru - everything from the transfer operations (to move asylum seekers from Christmas Island to the RPCs) to the day to day management of the centres.

One of the key priorities of the government was to set up the centres on Manus and Nauru as quickly as possible so that there was no risk that the number of people arriving by boat following the 14 August announcement would exceed the capacity of the RPCs. That meant getting temporary centres set up as quickly as possible.

I had a bit of experience with running a detention centre that could only be described as ‘temporary’. Back in 2011, I was the Centre Manager of Scherger Detention Centre in Far North Queensland. When I started in that role, the centre housed 400 asylum seekers. In March of that year (when the riots on Christmas Island happened), the centre capacity was doubled to 800. The additional detainees all arrived within a week - preceded by five Hercules aircraft loaded with tents, food and temporary ablution blocks.

If there was one lesson I learned from managing an 800 person detention centre where more than half the occupants were living in tent, it was that more permanent options had to be built quickly. In tropical climates, tent canvass begins to attract mould and rot. The air conditioning for those tents - an absolute must in 40 degree heat when alternative, cool recreation spaces are not available - is inadequate and conditions begin to wear out the patience of even the calmest of person.

So when the government announced the RPCs on Manus and Nauru, I knew that meant setting up temporary centres just like the one I managed in Queensland.

When I got to Nauru, I discovered I wasn’t wrong. The RPC is set in a hidden location in the centre of the island, surrounded by pinnacles. It is hot, remote and out of the way. The locals wouldn’t really even see the centre unless they went looking for it. Inside, there were a bunch of donga-style offices which were used for security staff, the clinic and some interview rooms. There was a purpose-build field kitchen, much like what you’d expect at a military base in a war zone, where food for staff and detainees was prepared by a team of catering staff.

The detainees were all living in tent when I arrived on Nauru. By the time I left, we’d managed to move around 88 of the 400 or so detainees into permanent buildings, and an operation to move a further 88 into the next permanent building was to commence within a few days of my departure from the island.  Of course, in July this year, conditions got the better of the detainees and a group of around 125 were involved in riots which saw all but the kitchen and dining facilities at the RPC destroyed by fire.  So the detainees are back in tents.

In mid-July 2013, a couple of weeks ago, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that all asylum seekers who arrived by boat after 19 July 2013 would be transferred to Papua New Guinea (PNG) for processing and resettlement. Shortly afterwards, he announced that Nauru had signed up to a similar deal.

As part of the announcements, Rudd indicated that the detention centres on Manus and Nauru would have to be expanded drastically. Manus itself would house around 3,000 people and Nauru, with the second RPC that had already been planned, would hold nearer to 2,000. The opposition, in response to the government’s announcement, said that they would build a ‘tent city’ on Nauru.

Many question whether countries like Nauru and PNG could really cope with providing settlement support to refugees in such large numbers when they’re struggling enough with their own population’s needs. Many question whether even having the detention centres brings any real good to the locals.

Having spent time trying to provide operational support to the Manus detention centre and actually running the one on Nauru, I question whether the centres really do any more than cause additional psychological and emotional damage to already damaged people, and cost the Australian taxpayer ridiculous amounts of money with little or no benefit.

If there was one thing that made me wonder at what God might be doing through all these weird and horrific policies that are being proposed by our politicians, it was the obvious presence of the gospel in Nauru.  Driving around the road that hugs the coast of the island - along which most of the population live - you drive past church after church. On a Sunday, a huge proportion of the population can be found in church, singing familiar songs of praise. Many of the Salvation Army personnel working at the detention centre found wonderful congregations of committed Christians who were faithfully meeting together and who would welcome the Australian workers in with open arms.

I don’t know whether the Labor Government’s policy of settling people in Nauru will happen - there are indications that the Nauruan government are taking a backwards step from the agreement. But if that ever happens, I do wonder whether the local Christians might actually be able to share the gospel with the detainees and that we might, in years to come, hear stories of Afghans, Iranians and Iraqis who found Jesus while on Nauru.

It’s a long shot and certainly not enough for me to support any policy of offshore processing on a desperate island, but perhaps it is a solace to know that God can work, even in those situations.


August 7, 2013, 11:38AM
The living conditions in the detention centres sound really bad. Is there a way for Australia to offer help to people whose lives are genuinely in danger, and at the same time circumvent the people smuggling rings? It seems to me that the people smugglers aren't humanitarians, but merely exploiters of the vulnerable. Do they really care that they're putting people on unseaworthy boats to Australia that might sink on the way here?
Mark Glanville
August 8, 2013, 1:09AM
Very helpful Greg, thank you. Your article belongs in the Herald. Have you spoken to a journalist about this possibility? I praise God for this gift to his church.
Greg Lake
August 9, 2013, 7:35PM
Thanks Mark, I've been in touch with quite a few journos of late. Mostly the ABC... :)

Ross, it's certainly true that people smugglers are generally unscrupulous. Those at the top are often involved in a number of black market industries - arms trade, people trafficking (for sex workers), drugs etc. The part with the asylum seekers is just a business opportunity.

That said, the people smuggling networks are a bit like something from The Wire (the TV show) - the people at the top stay separate from the action and avoid prosecution, the vulnerable people at the bottom (who typically act as agents and boat captains) are often the ones who get screwed by the system.

Anyway, thanks for the comments.


Got something to add?

  • Your Comment


Online Resources

subscribe to engage.mail

follow us

Latest Articles