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Nauru Will Soon Let Detained Refugees Walk Around the Island, But So What?

As one human rights lawyer put it, "letting people go for a walk does not resolve the fundamental problems caused by indefinitely warehousing them on a tiny remote island."
October 6, 2015, 2:23am

Accommodation on Nauru in 2012. Image via

In a surprise turn of events the Nauru government announced Saturday that their asylum seeker detention centre is to become an "open centre". This means that refugees, previously restricted to a fenced camp, will have 24-hour access to the whole island.

This change was revealed in a four-paragraph press release. The Nauru Government has also detailed how the Australian government will provide provisions for detainee safety including increased law enforcement and an increase in the number of community liaison officers—from 155 to 320. And while many see this as an improvement over Nauru's previously abhorrent policy of confinement, it also raises the question so what? Because most agree this isn't enough.

As the director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, Daniel Webb, summarised for VICE, "a transition to an open centre would be an important and hard-won improvement, but letting people go for a walk does not resolve the fundamental problems caused by indefinitely warehousing them on a tiny remote island."

The Nauru detention centre has been hugely controversial since it reopened three years ago. In March the United Nations claimed the detainment of children contravened the international Convention Against Torture. This came after reports of sexual abuse and leaks over the island's poor quality of health care, but before a swath of new laws were to introduced to gag workers from reporting on detainee conditions.

These are the reasons Daniel remains cynical, but he says the announcement's timing is also suspicious as it comes a few days before a High Court challenge over the legality of detention centres. As he explained, "we know the government has some power to detain people in Australia and some power to remove people from Australia. But it's another thing altogether to then spend billions of dollars funding and facilitating the detention of innocent people in other countries. It's that spending and that detention that this case challenges." In this way it's possible that giving refugees free rein could be some sort of defence, before the case gets under way.

"You gotta wonder how the Govt explains how they can process 600 refugee claims in under a week but they couldn't do them in past 2 yrs..."

David Mann, a Human Rights lawyer at The Refugee & Immigration Legal Centre, also raises the question of how three years worth of asylum seekers will be processed in a week. He says he's concerned they'll receive a "proper and fair process", adding that these cases aren't about legal technicalities, but the lives of human beings.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young also criticised this process over Twitter. As she wrote, "you gotta wonder how the Govt explains how they can process 600 refugee claims in under a week but they couldn't do them in past 2 yrs..."

What remains to be seen will be the long term strategy for refugees, with the new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reaffirming in September that no asylum seekers in Nauru or Manus island will be resettled in Australia. Instead, he said, they would be given the option to stay on Nauru, return home, or settle in Cambodia.

Commentators have called this a recipe for anarchy and violence and voiced concerns about detainee safety. There has already been significant reports of violence and sexual abuse and it's argued that by opening the centres, these issues will be exacerbated. Indeed a Manus Island detainee was beaten after refugees were given free rein of the island. As Webb states, "Not only is Nauru unsafe for vulnerable women and children that Australia sends there, the Nauruan justice system just can't protect them".

Considering how heavily Nauru relies on Australian foreign aid, the question must be asked, did this decision come from Nauru or Australia? Earlier last month Turnbull was asked whether immigration policy would change under his leadership. While agreeing detention centres are challenging and controversial, he refused to say they'd be closed down.

No official statement has come from the top, but maybe this move signals change ahead. Just fingers crossed it won't claim new victims, or stop there.

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