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<p>AAP/Fairfax/Alex Ellinghausen</p>

AAP/Fairfax/Alex Ellinghausen

Nauru’s foreign minister, Dr Kieren Keke, meets with an Australian delegation in the country to inspect sites for processing asylum seekers, August 2012

Australia’s Tent Diplomacy

It’s not just the asylum seekers who are frustrated on Nauru. The foreign minister has a few things to get off his chest, too.

The tiny Pacific nation of Nauru has — for the first time — voiced its frustrations over the Australian government’s decision to re-open the controversial asylum seeker processing camp on the island.

More than 300 people are being held under canvas, with plans to send at least a thousand more to the camp.

In an interview with The Global Mail Nauru’s foreign minister, Dr Kieren Keke, said Nauru had hoped that by now the asylum seekers would have been housed in permanent buildings on Nauru rather than still in tents.

Keke issued a rebuff to the Coalition, whose leader, Tony Abbott and immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, said that under an Abbott Government asylum seekers could expect to be held on Nauru for five years.

It was also a rebuff for the Gillard government policy that asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat should not enjoy any advantage — in the time taken to process their refugee claims — over those who apply for Australian residence through official channels overseas.

The length of time asylum seekers would stay on Nauru, Keke said, was for the Nauruan government to decide — under whose laws they were being processed — not for Australia.

<p>Department of Immigration and Citizenship</p>

Department of Immigration and Citizenship

Asylum seekers’ accommodation in Nauru, slammed by detainees and advocacy groups as unbearable and woefully inadequate, September 2012

“As I have said, the (assessment) process itself will determine how long it takes, not some pre-determined, arbitrary figure,” said Dr Keke.

Speaking from Nauru on October 19, Keke, a New Zealand-trained medical doctor, said: “I think we are all frustrated as to the time it’s taking to get permanent buildings up and permanent accommodation put in.

“The fact that we’ve still got tents — that’s a little less than desirable,” he said. “We’d all hoped by now we’d have progressed to permanent buildings and long-term accommodation.”

Keke made clear that he was not blaming the Australian government nor its contractors for the delay in erecting permanent facilities for asylum seekers on Nauru. Rather, he said, the delays had arisen because of Nauru’s insistence that the refugee processing centre be designed and re-built with proper facilities that would provide protection and dignity to the estimated 1,500 asylum seekers who will eventually be transferred from Australia to Nauru to await the processing of their claims for refugee status.

Keke spoke out after refugee advocates in Sydney made public details about the failings of accommodation on Nauru and disclosed that one man had already begun a hunger strike, and that there had been several suicide attempts among asylum seekers on Nauru.

One asylum seeker had informed authorities he would refuse food, although at present he was still eating, Keke said. He also confirmed what he described as several actions of self-harm, but he said none had resulted in serious or permanent injuries.

“The fact that we’ve still got tents — that’s a little less than desirable. We’d all hoped by now we’d have progressed to permanent buildings and long-term accommodation.”

The Refugee Action Coalition, which is in contact with some asylum seekers on Nauru, said a mass protest meeting of asylum seekers on Nauru on Wednesday had demanded an immediate start to the processing of their claims. The Gillard government has suspended the processing of all asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat since mid-August — a policy designed to ensure that people arriving by boat lose any advantage over others who use official channels to seek residence in Australia.

A message sent from Nauru and signed by a group of asylum seekers said: “Nauru has become a place for asylum seekers to be detained, in small tents that are set up on dirt and are non-standard, with only a few bathrooms and showers that aren’t usable and an area that is surrounded by wire. It’s called Nauru and we asylum seekers, numbering 290 people are detained within this.”

(According to the Refugee Action Coalition another 38 asylum seekers were flown into Nauru on Friday, October 19.)

The asylum seekers’ statement, delivered to the Refugee Action Coalition, continued: “Here, in addition to mental and psychological problems such as several instances of suicide attempts, most of the asylum seekers are suffering from horrible skin diseases that the officials’ only solution to is to recommend Panadol and an intake of cold water.

“When the sun rises the asylum seekers try to seek refuge outside the tents in search of some shade in dread of the blazing sun rays and the hot weather inside the tents and only when the sun sets are they able to return to their tents.”

The statement said the number of sick refugees on Nauru was increasing and their conditions were worsened by dirty water — a product of Nauru’s well-documented water shortages.

But Keke said the processing facility was being supplied several times a day with clean, desalinated water and that a well-equipped clinic to treat ill asylum seekers was in place on the island.

He said teams of nurses, doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists were being flown in on rotation from Australia; a fully equipped ambulance had been delivered; and an X-ray machine had been flown in on Thursday.

He said the only outbreak of disease he was aware of was a viral gastro infection that had brought down some of the centre’s Australian staff.

“When the sun rises the asylum seekers try to seek refuge outside the tents in search of some shade in dread of the blazing sun rays and the hot weather inside the tents and only when the sun sets are they able to return to their tents.”

“It’s understandable why the likes of the Refugee Coalition are trying to exaggerate the realities in trying to make the loudest statement they can and I appreciate they are trying to assist the asylum seekers,” Keke said.

“But it’s really a very calm centre and some of their efforts, although well intentioned, are probably not assisting the asylum seekers. They are fueling thoughts and leading to more despair in my view.”

The issue causing the most concern to the asylum seekers, their advocates and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is the delay in beginning the processing of refugee claims.

At least 4,000 people — most of them still being held in Australia — are among those caught by the suspension of the processing of their refugee claims.

Keke said he could not say when processing would begin on Nauru — though it will be conducted under Nauruan law and overseen by Nauru’s secretary for justice and border control.

“Nauru’s position is that we are working as quickly as we can all aspects of this — the necessary legislation, the human resource capacity and the physical resources,” Keke said. “Once they are in place, then assessments will commence.”

7 comments on this story
by Richard Ure

As a sovereign nation, is it not open to Nauru to close its own borders until the accommodation is to its satisfaction? Surely that would bring the matter to a head.

And if asylum seekers are "processed" under Nauru's laws, isn't it up to Nauru to determine the timing? Then "processing" becomes "detention" and the cat is belled.

October 20, 2012 @ 8:47am
by Ron Hoenig

Is it possible that an enlightened Nauruan regime will produce fully-fledged refugees that Australia will then refuse to house because they have not suffered sufficient disadvantage. Is it possible that refugees will instead become productive citizens of Nauru? Might the Naruan courts turn out to be a better option for these asylum seekers?

October 20, 2012 @ 9:18am
by Rolly

The whole shambles and political bun fight puts Australian society to shame.
It is illegal under international law and inhumane by any standard.

October 20, 2012 @ 10:43am
by Kaye

Keke's Howard moment on Nauru 'we will decide who comes to this country' has a hollow nevous tone while he sits at a table with Australian officials with one finger on the Oz Aid $ on off switch.

October 20, 2012 @ 1:34pm
Show previous 4 comments
by Marilyn

And stop ignorantly using the word processing.

When asylum seekers arrive here they are interviewed and then asked to file an application form for a visa 866 which can only be applied for in Australia.

What process are they doing on Nauru as Nauru has no law, no process, we run the courts and they cannot apply for an 866 visa for protection after we have illegally dumped them on Nauru.

Processing is what we do to tins of peas, not human beings who are just applying for a visa.

October 21, 2012 @ 5:32pm
by Lou Dingle Refugee therapist.

When Mr. Keke confirmed that the several actions of self-harm had none resulting in serious permanent injury, was he referring to physical or psychological or both? We know that detention leaves life long "injury" and that the effects of anxiety and depression from being isolated for long periods, infects others around them like a psychological virus. The self depravation that comes from being isolated is a neurological injury on the brain. It leads to chronic feelings of abandonment and often shame that a person has done something wrong , when in fact all they have done is try to preserve their life by seeking asylum. Try then convincing a heavily depressed person of that simple fact. The vicarious/secondary trauma on health workers is massive. We have not evolved to watch others suffer. This is certainly not the islander way. Where once it was five years jail for smuggling others it is now five years jail for seeking safety. The only difference is the conditions are worse than jail.
They call it the politics of deterrence. I call it the politics of faceless people who write policy and are not held personally responsible for the outcome. I ask all refugees to look out for one another and care for one another like pieces of gold, which is what you are. If you do this it is still better to be on Nauru than back in a country facing genocide. One day I promise you , we will welcome you with open arms to our country in Australia. Look after one another.

October 23, 2012 @ 2:51am
by M.A.

good for you Lou, I strongly second that emotion.

October 27, 2012 @ 10:21am
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