Nauru Refugee Detention Center: Why It's Lighting People Up (Literally)

This month's refugee camp spotlight is a little bit different because our "camp" today is Nauru refugee detention center, rather than a refugee camp. I chose to cover Nauru because I thought that any place where the residents light themselves on fire to protest their living conditions is worth our attention. In the last few weeks two different refugees being held at the detention center on Nauru have set themselves on fire in a desperate attempt to draw attention to the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia. The first, an Iranian man, died as a result of his protest, while the second, a young Somali woman, is hospitalized on the Australian mainland. [bctt tweet="Any place where residents light themselves on fire to protest their treatment is worth our attention. " username="refugee_review"]


You may be wondering what Australia has to do with all of this. Well, the Nauru refugee detention center was first opened in 2001 to accommodate new policies concerning asylum seekers in Australia. It was closed for a four year period in 2008, but reopened again in 2012 as numbers of asylum seekers increased. Nauru, an independent island nation, hosts the detention center for the Australian government in return for financial aid. In October 2015 the center became an open detention facility, meaning that its residents are now free to move about the island instead of being locked behind heavily guarded barbed wire fences. Many of the detention center's residents originally try to reach the Australian mainland to seek asylum. If they are successful they are brought here to wait while their claims are processed. But even if they are granted refugee status they will probably never return to Australia.

Australia's Policies

The policies that govern Australia's borders and the process of seeking asylum are strict at best and harsh and inhumane at worst. According to international law, seeking asylum is a universal human right. Processes must be in place in all countries which allow individuals a fair hearing of their claims to protection. And while the claims of many asylum seekers are denied, other claims are made by individuals in genuine need who are facing life-threatening persecution back home. The asylum process is supposed to offer those individuals a chance to rebuild their lives in safety.

Australia, however, has a policy of mandatory offshore detention for all asylum seekers. This means that any individual who arrives in Australia without a valid visa will be shipped to Nauru (or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea) while their claim to asylum is processed. Many remain detained for months, if not years. This grueling wait in the poor living conditions of Nauru refugee detention center with no legal right to work is riddled with uncertainty about all but one thing: even if an asylum seeker's claim is accepted, they will never be allowed to resettle in Australia. Most become permanent residents of Nauru where opportunity and upward mobility are limited and where tensions with the native population are high.

For far too long Australia has found a way to pawn its responsibility to asylum seekers off on impoverished nations. They would claim that their policies have brought irregular migration and deaths at sea to nearly zero, and they might be statistically correct. But what those numbers do not reveal is the hopelessness and frustration of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island and the outrage of many Australian citizens and human rights advocates around the world. One of the only ways to get back to Australia after being sent to Nauru is to require medical care that Nauru's hospital is not equipped to give. The young Somali woman who set herself on fire was being treated in Australia after a motorcycle accident when she was forcibly returned to the island. It was then that she staged her next protest.

[bctt tweet="Australia claims their #asylum policy has ended smuggling & deaths at sea - it's more complicated than that. " username="refugee_review"]

Recent Events

The emotions of frustration and uncertainty among those detained on Nauru have come to a boiling point several times. In 2013 residents protested, destroying 80% of the center's buildings. Residents have also staged hunger strikes, and now have lit themselves on fire as a desperate plea for attention. Australia, like a parent who is always staring at their phone instead of interacting with their children, has responded to these protests by essentially telling asylum seekers not to be so melodramatic, instead of realizing that the tantrums are an indication that their "parenting" policies are a grievous mistake.

[bctt tweet="Australia responds to #asylum protests like a parent who stares at their phone instead of interacting with their kids." username="refugee_review"]

Further Reading

An in-depth piece on Australian asylum

Papua New Guinea has found Nauru's sister detention center on Manus Island to be unconstitutional. Maybe that should tell us something.

Nauru's border chief tries to hold out an olive branch.

Australia's Immigration Minister blames the actions of those who set themselves on fire on "advocates and others," meaning people like me.

Australia's official asylum policy. If you're patient enough to read it, let me know in the comments if you think they follow it or not.

Some more great pieces on Nauru here.

Image Source: Wikipedia