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Nov 23, 2012

No photos, please: Nauru ‘unlike anything ever seen in Australia’

Amnesty International inspectors became the first independent assessors to visit the Nauru immigration camp this week, describing the conditions in vivid details for Crikey.

Amber Jamieson — Freelance journalist in New York

Amber Jamieson

Freelance journalist in New York

Nauru might be an enormous topic politically, but in reality the entire camp on the remote island is just 100 metres by 150 metres.

That’s where 387 asylum seekers — all men — currently spend nearly 24 hours a day. Most of the area is taken up by rows of green army tents packed with stretcher beds. The smaller tents fit five or six beds, while the larger tents have 16 or 17 beds crammed in. There’s barely any room to walk between the stretchers inside the tents and detainees have zero privacy.

Asylum seekers hang up their towels and clothes to dry by their beds, but with temperatures sitting around 40 degrees — if not 50 inside the tents — and humidity at 80%, it’s rare that items ever dry completely. Recently each tent received two fans, which helps. Wet bedding and clothes has caused several of the asylum seekers to develop rashes, for which medical services are regularly dolling out antiseptic cream.

Alex Pagliaro, refugee campaign co-ordinator for Amnesty International Australia, just spent several days visiting the detention centre in Nauru with her colleague Graham Thom, and has described these conditions to Crikey. The pair were the first independent assessors to be allowed access to the camp and have released a review on the conditions in Nauru this morning.

There is little shade and no trees in the centre, apart from an area known as the “recreation area”, a concrete slab with a shade cloth on top. Heat in the compound is exacerbated by the fact that the only surface is grey gravel, which makes any meaningful recreation — like playing sport — difficult.

Along one section of the camp, where Nauru’s tropical jungle meets the asylum seekers, trees and vines hang over providing shade. Only 20 to 30 people can huddle under there, but it’s significantly cooler than the rest of the camp and a popular spot.

Detainees keep in touch with the outside world via Facebook. One of the asylum seekers has set up a Facebook page to chronicle how the detainees are going and he has been given extra internet time in order to maintain that page on behalf of the rest of the men. Six different languages are spoken in the camp.

Occasional excursions are organised, but there’s not much to do in Nauru. Outings usually consist of bussing the men to a beach or shady spot and leaving them there with guards for an hour or two. There are no movie theatres, shopping centres or parks to visit.

“Conditions in the camp are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Australian detention centres,” Pagliaro told Crikey. “They are far, far harsher. It is such a shame that we weren’t allowed to take photos because they would have been stark.”

Amnesty says the Department of Immigration had given permission for photographs to be taken and the head of security in Nauru had approved photographs, before DIAC revoked the use of cameras just before Pagliaro and Thom were to enter the camp. A spokesperson for DIAC told Crikey: “No one was given permission to take photos inside an immigration detention facility. Claims they had received prior permission from DIAC were completely false.”

Amnesty denies this and says permission had been discussed and agreed upon when Pagliaro and Thom arrived on Nauru, before the pair were informed on Wednesday morning that permission had been withdrawn.

But although the housing conditions are worse than Australian centres and there’s been suicide attempts (including a man who attempted to hang himself from a tent pole this week). “I didn’t get that sense of just overwhelming hopelessness that you do get in Christmas and Curtin island, when people have been locked up for years and are like walking zombies,” said Pagliaro.

She also notes this is partly because detainees have only been there for two months and that people were getting more desperate, describing it as a “pressure cooker situation”.

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48 comments

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48 thoughts on “No photos, please: Nauru ‘unlike anything ever seen in Australia’

  1. Iain Hall

    Its not meant to be a holiday camp Amber

  2. zut alors

    Don’t you just love it when politicians do their annual ‘sleep out’ in the elements for one night every winter, allegedly experiencing what conditions are like for the homeless? Such an ideal opportunity for publicity shots for the self-satisfied to circulate in their electorates.

    But I’d prefer to see them spend a couple days on Nauru in those steamy tents with the only exercise being their thumbs to twiddle. A taste of reality can’t hurt.

  3. GeeWizz

    And here I was expecting Amnesty to say how great Nauru facilities are /sarcasm

    I think the real crime here is that months after Nauru is reopened this incompetent Labor Government have only sent 387 illegals there…. thats less people than were on the Tampa(450) who Howard sent directly to Nauru… do not pass Christmas Island, do not collect your $200 Dole chequre.

    Once the Coalition shuts down the Labor People Smuggling business like they did in 2001, they’ll be able to close all these detention centres again. How many people in detention when Rudd took over, 4 people total wasn’t it?

  4. Jorani Long

    My parents escaped the Khmer Rouge to Indonesia and lived in a refugee camp with many other Cambodians and Vietnamese. The condition was horribly poor by Australian standard but they did have a little economy, entertainments and education. Even if the government sends all of the asylum seekers to Nauru, they will still keep coming as there is more of a certain chance to be settled in Australia than waiting overseas with uncertain future.

    It looks like the government is not doing anything to provide better conditions for refugees waiting overseas, and nothing to to give them hope and certainty that they will be resettled faster if they stay and wait which will be better than risking their lives coming to Australia on rickety boats. The hope and benefits at the end far outweigh waiting in transit countries, the light at the end of the tunnel for boat people is more seductive than moths to the flame.

    This site changed a lot since my last visit.

  5. floorer

    ^ Actual experience beats opinion anyday eh GeeWizz? ^

  6. shepherdmarilyn

    Iain it is a deliberately contrived torture chamber that will cost taxpayers over $1.6 billion to achieve precisely nothing except broken lives.

    What sort of callous coward are you.

  7. shepherdmarilyn

    There is no people smuggling business, people smuggling is the forced movement of human beings across borders for exploitation and against their wills.

    REfugees most definitely want to move so it is not possible to smuggle them anywhere.

  8. floorer

    From the dictionary on my Mac : “Smuggling is the clandestine transportation of goods or persons, such as out of a building, into a prison, or across an international border, in violation of applicable laws or other regulations.” Smuggling does not mean forced.

  9. shepherdmarilyn

    Human smuggling does, to be human smuggling it requires coercion and ongoing exploitation.

    And there is nothing covert about it, as our own courts have said for over a decade now.

    As it is a legal right to come here by sea where is the smuggling?

  10. Matt Steadman

    Does anyone know the name of the Facebook page referred to in the article? I can’t seem to find it after a couple of basic searches

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