NAURU: The Undesirables by Mark Isaacs

I’ve been focusing this month mainly learning more about the country of Nauru itself, but there’s a singular issue that Nauru is famous for today – hosting Australian refugee detention centres. There are two centres, one on Nauru’s Topside, the other on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where on-and-off for the last 20 years Australia has sent refugees who have tried to come by boat for “processing” – essentially indefinite detention, meant to scare off other refugees trying to make it to Australia.

Australia has been condemned by the United Nations for breaching human rights, and the policy has been criticized as expensive, inhumane, and ineffective. I had not known of this policy before this month (chillingly called the “Pacific Solution“) but it feels not unlike the children in cages along the American border – even the rhetoric is the same about “illegals”.

As for The Undesirables, Mark Isaacs was sent as a young untrained Salvation Army worker as the camps were spun back up in 2012. His job was to alleviate some of the conditions of the refugees (at that time only men, but later women and children), but it was a job functioning inside Australia’s structures. The Undesirables is his memoir of his stints in the early months of the camps – getting to know the men there, helping where he could and feeling powerless in the face of the human rights violations there and the deterioration of the refugees’ mental and physical states. He eventually turned whistleblower, and this book, originally published 2014 but revised as of 2016, shares what he witnessed at the camps.

The camps have been gradually wound down in recent years – some refugees have eventually been processed after years of detention and accepted to Australia, some have returned to their countries of origin to take their chances with the same situation they fled from, and others have been resettled to other countries more accepting of refugees. Attempts are being made right now to resettle the last refugees on Nauru to Canada under our private refugee sponsorship program – I’d encourage anyone interested to check out Operation #NotForgotten, and if you’re Australian or Canadian, consider ways to get involved, donate or otherwise support the program.

This is less a Nauruan story than an Australian one. However, while the point and the purpose of the camps is Australian, Nauru is paid by Australia to host these sites, Nauruans are employed in the camps, and the camps and refugees’ presence affect everyday life on Nauru. This seems to be one more piece of Nauru’s longstanding position in Australia’s orbit, and as Nauru needs sources of funding post-phosphate, this is one of them.

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