Australia’s Nauru Conundrum

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Australia’s Nauru Conundrum

The detention facility’s purpose has diminished, but the country’s geopolitical importance has increased. In the meantime, 73 people languish there.

Australia’s Nauru Conundrum
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / DIAC Images

Australia has no intention of closing its offshore detention center in Nauru. Given that only 73 people remain on the island, and attempts by asylum seekers to make the maritime crossings to Australia from Indonesia have dried up, it seemed as if the moral weight Canberra had hung around its own neck could finally be removed. But Australia’s calculations with regard to the facility are no longer about punishing maritime asylum seekers. These calculations now concern Nauru itself, and – as with most things Canberra does at present – China. 

Last week the Australian government awarded a controversial American private prison operator, Management and Training Corporation (MTC), a AU$420 million, three-year “garrison and welfare” contract to run the detention facility on Nauru. The renewed contract is a firm signal that Canberra is investing further in the facility, even if the stated reasons for its continued existence have been negated.

Australia’s efforts to prevent maritime crossings from Indonesia are built on two pillars. The first is the physical turning back of any boats that attempt the journey, with the second being the maintenance of offshore detention centers on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea designed to frighten anyone who may be considering the voyage. The cruel conditions within these facilities – and indefinite nature of the detention – are an essential part of the warning Australia aims to send. 

Yet there has always been another purpose to the facility on Nauru, and that has been to provide the island with income. Since the once-rich phosphate deposits on the island were depleted in the early-2000s, Nauru has turned to more creative means of generating income. These have included dubious off-shore banking schemes that encourage tax evasion and money-laundering, and leveraging its sovereignty to recognize the Russian-sponsored breakaway regions of Georgia – South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Becoming Australia’s offshore jail has been the most successful of these moneymaking ventures. 

It is, therefore, in both Australia and Nauru’s interests to keep the facility open, even if the stated need for it has diminished. Canberra fears where Nauru may look for new sources of income should the facility be closed. China is arguably the first place that Nauru would turn. 

Nauru has something that China wants – diplomatic recognition. Despite its tiny population of only around 10,000 people, the country’s sovereign decision to not recognize China hurts Beijing’s pride. 

Instead Nauru currently has diplomatic relations with Taiwan. But as Solomon Islands and Kiribati have recently discovered, Beijing has much deeper pockets than Taipei. Although relations between Nauru and Taiwan are close, in an attempt to play the two Chinas off against each other in 2002 Nauru briefly switched diplomatic relations to Beijing, only to sever them six months later, and then formally recommence diplomatic ties with Taipei in 2005. Being strapped for cash may lead Nauru to make similar plays again. 

As Australia is currently finding with Solomon Islands, newly formed diplomatic relations with Beijing bring complications to the balance of power – and Australia’s primacy – in the region. It suits Australia’s interests and its regional strategy to limit the presence of adversaries in the Pacific to have several of its neighbors maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan. 

Yet for the 73 people still languishing in the detention center on Nauru, this is clearly an unfair burden to carry. The purpose Canberra has assigned them has shifted from being used as a grim form of deterrence to now being pawns in a broader game of geopolitics. This is a further debasement of these people’s basic humanity. 

Alongside this dehumanization, there is now a glaring absurdity to this strategy. Australia’s policy of turning back to Indonesia any boats of asylum seekers is undermining its broader regional calculations. If the objective is now to keep Nauru financially afloat, then the logical conclusion would be that there needs to be a steady stream of asylum seekers to be sent to the island to be detained in order to justify the facility’s existence. 

Australia has found itself caught. Who does Canberra wish to deter the most – asylum seekers or China? 

Of course, there is another option. Australia could end the charade, close the facility, and just continue to give the money it pays Nauru for hosting it as aid instead. The 73 people currently in detention on Nauru could be resettled in Australia, where as productive members of society their taxes could help provide this aid. This would be the rational response to the situation, but for two decades now Australia has chosen to be stubbornly irrational with its treatment of asylum seekers, and it is unlikely to change.