Nauru is the world’s smallest island nation, and home to one of Australia’s three infamous offshore immigration detention facilities. Since the Australian Government implemented their “Pacific Solution” policy in 2013, over a thousand asylum seekers attempting to enter Australia by boat have been imprisoned on Nauru, along with more on Christmas and Manus Islands. Needless to say, the living conditions on all three centres have been condemned worldwide, gaining widespread criticism by human rights groups such as the United Nations and Amnesty International.
In theory, the Nauru Regional Processing Centre was closed in 2018, when thanks to a prior agreement with the Obama administration, 378 refugees from Nauru were resettled to the United States. However, as of March this year, 211 individuals remain on the island: 210 men and one woman.
This leaves much of the island’s facilities empty, while the Australian Government continues to pay for Nauruan security to guard the buildings so they can potentially be used again.
To get an up-to-date report on what’s happening at the facility, we spoke to a former employee who has returned from Nauru earlier this year. For more than three years, between 2017 and June 2020, Peter* worked on Nauru as a case manager and social worker. VICE spoke to him to hear about life in the camps, and what he learned working there.
VICE: Hey Peter. To start off, can you describe to me what your responsibilities were as a case manager?
Peter: From the time I started, not every single person had a case manager/social worker that was specifically allocated to them. Only people with higher needs would have that: women and children, people with physical health problems, extreme mental health issues or suicidal ideation. You'd have people specifically in charge of checking up on them and helping them get to medical appointments and mental health appointments, making sure they're engaged with those services and spending a lot of time talking and trying to support them emotionally to keep them engaged with life. Some of them are sort of disengaged from everything, especially in the earlier days when there really seemed like there was no pathway out of Nauru. People were giving up on any sort of future focus.
Can you tell me a bit about the structure of the facility? Was it just one big centre or were there different centres?
There are the three big main camps, which they call regional processing centres. We called them RPC1, RPC2, and RPC3. RPC1 was the one that was burned down way back in the day from protests, and so that was re-done into a compound for the Australian and Nauru Government senior people. RPC1 actually had no refugees living there for almost the entire time, it only had a mental health place, a tiny emergency clinic with about six beds, and the rest were all offices and where security guards and various other personnel stayed. Then RPC2 and RPC3 were initially all tents. RPC3 was the family camp which is where women, children and families were held, and RPC2 was generally speaking a single man's camp.
An older photo from when the tents were still in use
Could you help me visualise what it was like living in these centres?
The tents were disgusting. They were hot, foul, mouldy. It was horrible to be in there for just an hour, talking and working, and the refugees lived in them 24 hours a day for years. The Australian government always had this screw you attitude towards the refugees and it was handled with such arbitrariness as well. For instance, Nauru is hot to the extreme. If you don't have air conditioning, you’re sweating within a minute, even in the shade. At a minimum, you needed a fan, so the government brought fans in piecemeal. They never did anything in a coordinated, complete way. If they had 1300 refugees, they never brought in 1300 of anything. They'd bring in 200 fans and give it to 200 people. It's bad when everyone's just sitting there hot, but it's so much worse when you can see some people have a fan and some people don't. It's worse than just having nothing.
Do you think that boiled down to a disorganisation issue, or do you think they just didn’t care?
Certainly, they didn't care. I would say over the time that I was there, I'd be shocked to think that it was just disorganisation, just ineffectualness. At a certain point I have to think that they went out of their way to make these people's lives horrible so they would give up and go home on their own, which would solve Australia's problems completely. If they voluntarily returned to their home countries that's the best outcome the government could dream of.
What was it like working there in general? It sounds pretty challenging but was there any one thing that made it especially so?
I haven't thought about it in those big terms before but overwhelmingly the hardest thing was the uncaring reality. Your job is more or less to help them, but the reality is you can only help with minor things. For example, you’ll talk to someone and their overwhelmingly obvious problem was that their family had been split up by the Australian Government—their wife and one daughter were in Australia while they were stuck on Nauru. The whole world can see that they should be reunited with their family, but you can't help with that.
You have to constantly write welfare reports and if someone tries to kill themselves or someone tries to hurt themselves you've got to write it in. But they have this way of trying to make it sort of sanitised. They want everything on paper, but you can’t write this person wants to kill themselves because they're separated from their wife and kids. You can’t write that they're at their wits' end because of the total silence in response to their multiple requests for information. You just have to write Person A made verbal threats at 1:52pm on the 18th of December 2017 that they would attempt to take their own life by undisclosed means. And if you write anything else, your managers will erase it all.
I hated all of it. If I had a choice, I would shut the whole thing down in a heartbeat. I genuinely think it would qualify as a human rights violation. But I couldn't. I don't have the power to do that, and all the people that do have any power or influence are completely sanitising themselves from everything. So aside from the hot weather, the crappy hours, being separated from your family, the hardest thing was definitely the fact that you can see all this awful stuff happening, and you couldn't really do anything about it.
My role was just calling people and asking how are you today? I'll check back in with you next Monday. That’s what they want. That's what they provided you with. And then you write another update, X sounds suicidal. It’s just a pointless cycle of nothing. The refugees will tell you openly the question they hate most in the world is “how are you?” They can't stand to hear someone come and ask that. Because if you're just calling to tick a box—which is what that role is—it's just pointless meaningless box ticking. They'll just tell you to fuck off at that point.
What about your colleagues? How did they feel about working there?
Some of them felt incredibly compromised, and quite quickly, because they couldn't stand the actual on-the-ground reality. It’s so different to everyone's perception from Australia. It's extremely unfair. And it's apparent extremely quickly that you're not really supposed to help. At a maximum, the government wants headlines prevented. They want to make sure nobody commits suicide or sets themselves on fire, but they don't actually want anything nice to happen to the refugees. They don't want them to feel better or get freedom.
The majority of people who came and did my role felt that as long as they were helping according to the refugees, that was the only thing that mattered. And I think people felt that as long as they were, they would try and hack it out. But if they weren't, if they didn't get that sense, people got exhausted extremely quickly and quit. It was a hard job. It's exhausting and difficult, the days are bloody long and it's a shit place to be. It's just depressing, and without feeling like you're making a difference, you can't really do it.
What were some of saddest aspects or things you witnessed whilst working there?
Certainly, the kids. I don't think anyone could debate that. I mean, there were hundreds of children there at one point and you can just see they're so different to normal kids. I've spent a lot of time in South America and Southeast Asia but even in situations of material poverty, the children still are happy and playing. In Nauru, there were heaps of kids that were checked out. They just had blank faces, no smiles, no laughs.
I'm no expert, I've absolutely no experience in psychology, or mental health, or children's welfare, but I know there's no way some of those kids will grow up to be well-adjusted normal adults with a happy life. It's just not possible when you saw how fucked up they were. The thing is, it was so unnecessary. So unnecessary. No boats arrived for years and years, but we persisted with this policy even though it didn't really do anything but ruin those children's lives.
In terms of when everyone got moved out of the tents, how did that happen?
That was piecemeal over like four years. Initially, the government started to build little accommodation modules around Nauru and transitioned the refugees out of the tents into the accommodation. But they built nowhere near enough, so we had a situation for years where there were still significant numbers of people living in tents. What happened in the end was the process for refugees to go to America finally started to kick in. Then you had refugees leaving to the United States and once you had a hundred leave, that’s a hundred new housing slots that opened up. The government never provided enough housing for people. It was just that after years and years of a two-tier system, eventually enough refugees left that the total number left dropped low enough that they could house them all. There were still families and children living in tents into 2018, so there were children that spent five years in tents.
Do you know what's happening with the centres now in Nauru?
Technically they're furloughed, but the Australian Government is still paying for Nauruan security to guard the sites so they could be theoretically used again someday. There are two types of sites in Nauru: there are the accommodation sites which are still active, and the refugees still live in, and the original fenced-in regional processing centres which are now closed down and demolished. We're paying exorbitant rent to the Nauruans to keep the processing centre sites even though there’s no one on them and we're paying for Nauruan security to guard them all the time. They're just flat spaces now pretty much – the big barbed wire fences are still there but there’s nothing inside. RPC1 which has only ever had Australian government staff inside is still operating as the Australian Government compound. Everything to do with security, logistics, immigration, home affairs and border force, all of those guys work inside there and that's still fully operational.
Words by Joseph Lew. Follow him on Instagram
*Name has been changed upon request