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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.

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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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