Australia's million-dollar-a-month Nauru detention centre for two refugees

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Location of Nauru
Location of Nauru

The cost of maintaining the Australian Government's refugee detention centre on the tiny island republic of Nauru is now estimated at AUD1 million per month. The centre is currently home to just two Iraqi asylum seekers who were found to be refugees, but refused protection by Australian Immigration after receiving an adverse security assessment from the Australian security agency, ASIO.

Immigration officials say the Nauru camps are being maintained in a state of readiness, complete with dozens of staff, in case they are needed for future asylum-seekers. The "million dollar a month" figure is more than six times the official estimate given after the last big group of asylum seekers left the island late last year.

The group of 25 asylum seekers were accepted by Australia after nearly five years detained on the island. The decision to release the group followed a September visit to Nauru by former immigration minister John Hodges with mental-health experts, who said that "the precarious mental health of many of the detainees required urgent attention." The delegates said some men were being constantly monitored for suicide risk or self-harm.

The last two asylum seekers on Nauru say they are hitting rock bottom - after their friends were granted refugee and humanitarian visas. Both men say they are beyond the point of despair, insisting that they cannot understand why they received adverse security assessments.

"Sometimes I feel that we are a piece of rubbish that everyone is trying to get rid of," Mohammed Sagar told Melbourne's Age newspaper. "We feel we are caught in the middle of a situation. It is too much to bear," said Mr Sagar, who insists neither he nor Mohammad Faisal are security risks.

"We strongly reject the finding and we believe it is unfair and unjustified. I have not said or done anything to cause harm in any way to an individual, let alone a whole country."

Mr Sagar said there was no longer an interpreter at the facility and this accentuated the men's problems. The pair are also concerned that they will lose other support, including access to a psychiatrist, when responsibility for the centre shifts from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to Australian and Nauru authorities in March.

"I feel I am very alone on this very tiny piece of land in the middle of the sea," Mohammed Sagar, 29, said in November. Mohammad Faisal, 25, said: "My only option now is just to keep going with medication and sit alone inside my room and cry."


Faisal and Sagar say they had been been accused of not being co-operative in interviews with an ASIO officer in January, a charge they emphatically denied. "I am wondering why those officers didn't mention earlier that I haven't been co-operative," wrote Sagar. "Why they waited four months to tell me this. I feel it is a psychological war. And they waited all this time just to put me under mental pressure."

They had reportedly made "anti-Western" and "anti-Australian" comments during an interview with ASIO officers.

"I've never expected that I would some day get such an accusation thrown on me, because it's terrible," said Mr Sagar. "I have never been in a police station, for a small fight even. How come to be a security threat for a whole country? It's terrible. I can't imagine it, even. I'm living in limbo. To think there is a possibility, even 1 per cent, to get a rejection, makes me feel very, very bad," he said.

Mr Faisal says he has a problem with his eyes which he believes could be treated in Australia. "I am enduring all this just to get freedom and be treated as a human being. If I didn't have a problem, I would go back (to Iraq) and would not endure this terrible situation here. I don't want human rights to be given to me. I want animal rights."


This week a DIMIA spokesman said "preliminary estimates" of the cost of maintaining the Nauru facilities in a contingency state were "around $1 million a month". The spokesman said the cost of maintaining the centre was not affected by the presence of the two men.

Australian Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett said the cost was absurd. He said it was crucial that the two men on Nauru not be forgotten: "They can't just be left in limbo."

Critics say there are no grounds for maintaining the facility, bearing in mind the Christmas Island immigration facility with a capacity for over 200 people — and is currently building a AUD300 million 800-bed centre there.

The Howard government has negotiated with Nauru and Papua New Guinea for the detention camps to remain in operation, and has indicated that it will re-activate the two camps if people smuggling resumes. Prime Minister John Howard hails the use of offshore detention as an "outstanding success"


Senator Bartlett said the pair should be allowed to appeal against the findings to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, like those who received adverse security clearances on Australian soil. "It's obviously not tenable to keep two people stuck on an island in the middle of the Pacific on their own," he said. Labor immigration spokesman Tony Burke said: "Nauru should be shut down. It's a waste of money, and it's appalling to leave these two languishing."

An Immigration Department spokesman said officials were working closely with the Nauruan Government "to find a resolution to the situation".

Mr Sagar said he had suffered from depression and frustration over the past four years, but it was much harder now. "We had friends we could talk to to pass the time," he said. "Now I feel as if time has stopped." He expressed gratitude to Australians who had written letters of support.

Among those expressing concern is Mohammad al-Zirjawi, who was freed in August said, "they will go crazy in the camp alone." Mr Zirjawi suffers from depression, but says he is trying to make a fresh start.

Refugee advocate Marion Le says the ordeal has been a shockingly long period of detention for those on Nauru. She said, "it's been in my opinion an unmitigated disaster."

The Immigration Department said in November that the Government was working to resolve the cases of the two final Nauru asylum seekers.