Doctors For Refugees website, protests by the Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney [Photos: Coalition Facebook postings]Top: Doctors For Refugees website. Bottom: protests by the Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney [Photos: Coalition Facebook postings]

The dire plight of refugees held on Nauru under Australia’s ‘offshore processing’ regime, a crackdown on international media trying to report on the asylum-seekers, and a very public row with China combined to overshadow the Pacific Islands Forum, which was hosted by the tiny nation on 1-9 September.

Criticism of Nauru’s role in Australia’s offshore detention policy has been unrelenting, with condemnation by human rights groups and the United Nation refugee agency, UNHCR, (see ‘Island of despair’, Commonwealth Update, Nov 2016 and ‘Is this how you treat people?’, Update, Dec 2017). In the run-up to the forum, a health crisis among child refugees on Nauru duly dominated headlines after a whistleblower revealed a surge of self-harm among children, including swallowing fencing wire and dousing themselves with petrol, or exhibiting traumatic withdrawal syndrome (when detainees become so despairing that they stop eating and become catatonic). The Guardian reported that at least 20 children in the Australian-run processing centre were refusing food and fluids and faced permanent harm or death. Nauru’s president, Baron Waqa, claimed that refugee organisations and the children’s parents were pushing the children to self-harm and ‘working the system’ to get to Australia. Medical staff rebutted Waqa’s claim, with Doctors for Justice stating: ‘These conditions are increasing as a direct result of prolonged detention, limited access to child and adolescent mental health care, and severe stress in families.’

In an effort to counter the bad press Nauru was receiving over its role as ‘Australia’s Guantánamo’ (the phrase was also used about the refugee detention camp on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, which began to close last year), Waqa’s government doubled down on its longstanding policy of trying to block reporting on the refugees in detention. In 2014 it increased the non-refundable application fee for a media visa from A$200 to A$8,000 ($5,700). Although the exorbitant charge was waived for the Pacific Island Forum, the media clampdown continued. The Australian public broadcaster ABC was banned from not only covering the forum but going to the country at all because it alleged in 2015 that an Australian phosphate trader, Getax, was bribing Waka and the Nauruan justice minister, David Adeang. Waka and Adeang denied the allegations. (Another case of alleged bribery of Nauru officials is pending in Australia.) Australian Nauru detention centre staff were told they could lose their jobs for talking to the press about refugees, while the reporters themselves have faced draconian restrictions: they can only travel around the island accompanied by security officers, and are supposed to get approval from the government to pursue stories. Police detained a New Zealand reporter as she was interviewing a refugee outside a detention camp and removed her forum accreditation.

The Nauru government said no journalist on Nauru has been prevented from talking to any person, including refugees, but they needed to go through the proper channels to visit or go near the refugee camps, and report from outside the Forum summit, Radio New Zealand reported. It said the reporter had not followed correct procedures, and this put the safety of herself and others at risk. The government said it expected to be portrayed as preventing press freedom, but claimed this was not the case and as a sovereign country it had the right to protect its citizens and residents, and it would not apologise for its actions.

One of the biggest side-shows distracting attention from the forum’s agenda came when the Chinese envoy stormed out of a leaders’ meeting. Waka said he had refused to let Du Qiwen speak until after the Tuvalu president had finished, calling the Chinese official ‘insolent’ and adding that ‘maybe because he was from a big country he wanted to bully us’. However, the Guardian reported that the Chinese official had waited patiently at the meeting but was ignored by the other attendees in what the newspaper’s source said was ‘a deliberate and public humiliation’. Waka went further the next day, demanding an apology from China and criticising ‘big countries coming in and sometimes buying their way through the Pacific’. He added: ‘Some are extremely aggressive…They’re not our friends. They just need us for their own purposes.’

While many Asian-Pacific countries are increasingly concerned at the ‘debt diplomacy’ of China (Malaysia has just cancelled two huge deals), it must also be remembered that Nauru is one of only 16 nation states that gives full diplomatic recognition to Taiwan, not least because of the A$5,000-a-month ‘friendly payoffs’ Taipei has given Nauru’s ministers. According to the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Nauruan ministers have privately acknowledged to US diplomats that “both Beijing and Taiwan dole out cash to politicians” and that it was “just a matter of to whom”.’ Days earlier, Nauru had sparked a row by initially refusing to stamp entry visas into the Chinese delegation’s diplomatic passports. According to what Agence France-Presse said was ‘an apparent bid to tweak the nose of Chinese delegates’, Nauru said it would only stamp their personal passports. A compromise was found after the Samoan prime minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, threatened to boycott the Pacific Islands Forum. Samoa pledged its allegiance to China in 1976 and receives aid from Beijing.

Meanwhile, scant attention was paid to the forum’s resolutions. The final communiqué stated: ‘Climate change presents the single greatest threat to the livelihood, security and wellbeing of Pacific people.’ There was also discussion of security and regional co-operation, childhood obesity in the region, environmental problems such as illegal fishing and marine pollution, and a call for the UN to appoint a rapporteur on climate change. The forum urged the US to rejoin the UN’s Paris agreement to curb rising temperatures. With climate change an increasingly urgent issue for most forum members, some of which are already losing territory to rising sea levels, many Nauruans must be hoping this also begins to get the attention it deserves.

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Doctors Portal: Nauru detention unsafe for children: Senate inquiry