Phosphate turned Refugee Boom


n December 2014, Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) awarded the AU$32 million contract for refugee resettlement on the Republic of Nauru to the newly formed Australian NGO consortium Connect Settlement Services. Following a merger between Melbourne’s Australian Multicultural Education Services and the Brisbane-based Multicultural Development Association, Connect became the newest organization tasked with helping people confined to the small Pacific island nation adjust to their new life. A Director of Operations was immediately deployed under an AU$200,000 twelve-month contract to lead service delivery and promote Connect’s new ‘corporate profile as the expert in managing cultural diversity on Nauru.’ Replacing Save the Children as the resettlement agency, Connect was part of supporting the major institutional changes taking place on Nauru. The contract closely followed the awarding of AU$67,000 to Brisbane Catholic Education for educational provisions to the island’s new inhabitants and an additional AU$52 million to the engineering firm Canstruct as they continued constructing residential buildings across the small coral atoll. This supplemented major contracts held by the asset resource management corporation Transfield Services for the management of asylum seekers at Nauru’s new refugee processing centers (RPCs) and the commercial healthcare provider International Health and Medical Services, an offshoot of the medical remote logistics firm International SOS, for medical services to staff and RPC occupants, Nauru’s newly resettled refugee populations and local community.

Once nicknamed ‘Pleasant Island,’ Nauru’s latest incarnation as Australia’s refugee processing and housing hub extends from a difficult history of international development schemes and Nauruan investment ventures. Phosphate extraction briefly made Nauru one of the wealthiest countries in the world and the island filled with sports cars, imported American goods and fast food. However environmental depletion and near bankruptcy coupled with some of the highest diabetes and obesity rates worldwide led Nauru to the brink of disaster. Failed forays into offshore banking – curtailed by US intervention once Russian capital flowed to the island – $2 million lost in the unsuccessful London musical Leonardo: A Portrait of Love and another $24 million to investment scams, are all part of the legacy that led Nauru to accept Australia’s most recent development package.

Under the 2001 ‘Pacific Solution,’ Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG) entered into agreements with the Australian government to house its offshore asylum operations in exchange for development aid packages and an economic sector for local business and employment opportunities. Anyone who makes their way by boat and claims to be a refugee in Australian territorial now excised waters is sent to Nauru or Manus for refugee processing and resettlement. The majority of Nauru’s new ‘resources’ are asylum seekers from Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka. Most make their way by boat from Indonesia before interdiction by Australian coastguard and ‘offshoring’ to Nauru.

The Republic of Nauru. (June 2015 / Photo by Author)

In Australia, disallowing ‘boat people’ arrivals has acquired tremendous political value as a bipartisan approach. This was crystallized by then Liberal Prime Minister John Howard’s famous dictum, “We will decide who comes here and the manner in which they come;” later Labor Prime Ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, followed by the Liberal’s Tony Abbott then Malcolm Turnbull’s pronouncements that “you will never be settled in Australia.” Since 2013, the Liberal party’s push to close the majority of Australia’s mainland detention centres and relocate asylum operations offshore has resulted in Nauru resurging as a ground for international financial investment. Because of Nauru’s secrecy about policy operations, willingness to implement refugee legislation and operational protocols, and near lockdown on international access, combined with violent outbreaks around PNG’s Manus Island facility, the country has emerged as the preferred choice for Australia’s refugee and asylum management plans. As a result, the importation of Australia’s asylum seekers has unleashed an unprecedented economic boom in Nauru, with as much as AU$5 billion flowing from the Australian taxpayer between 2012-17 (Mcllroy 2017). These financial flows have once again converted Nauru into a monoeconomy from the small country’s previous phosphate boom.

New Local Jet Ski Pastimes at the Harbor.  (June 2015 / Photo by Author)

Human Economies

Environmentalists have long recognized the impact of resource extraction on world ecosystems (Nash 1979; Sawyer 2004; Taussig 1980) – though to date the impact of human economies have not featured prominently in discussions of the Anthropocene. Important work shows the impact of prisons, immigration detention centers, and places of incarceration on the mental health of those held in and working in the system (Conlon and Hiemstra 2016; Moran, Gill and Conlon 2013). Records of abuse, scandals, escapes, riots, and lawsuits are worryingly symptomatic of the confinement of people. As part of the neoliberal turn, there is also a global move towards the privatization of carceral systems (Flynn 2018). Adding the profit motive is shown to provide perverse incentives to keep incarceration rates high, including the advancement of punitive border policies (Kirby et al. 2013). The maximization of profit is achieved through drastic efforts such as operational cost-cutting and depressing labor practices to controversial economic and political ties. In Australia, the economic value of immigration detention has skyrocketed with the push towards the incarceration of asylum seekers.

In a carceral landscape of punishment and profit, how we might better theorize the human ecological consequences resulting from forms of confinement? Here, I want to think about the different registers of contamination as articulated in the border anthropocene. In Nauru, toxic traces of phosphate industrial labor are sustained in the bodies of workers now requisitioned for the refugee industry (Morris forthcoming). When I conducted my fieldwork, 31% of the local population was employed in refugee labor forces, rising swiftly from 7% in 2013, and easily overtaking the country’s beleaguered phosphate industry, which fell from 15.1% in 2013 to 9.6% in 2015. A pock-marked landscape, 85% of the population heavily overweight and diabetic, are some of the legacies of over a century of phosphate extraction for fertilizer to satiate global consumptive demands. Now, a stigmatized local population and over 1,000 angry and mentally wracked asylum seekers and refugees are some of the consequences of Nauru’s refugee system, again to satiate Australian moral panics around the figure of the ‘illegal’ and maritime border arrival.

Refugee Extraction Impacts

The world’s smallest island nation at just 21 km², Nauru permitted and indeed required extensive international and Australian intervention in order to develop and administer its refugee processing operations. Prior to the offshore processing project, Nauru had no history of refugee legislation or refugee settlement. The country was not a signatory to the Refugee Convention nor did it have its own national asylum procedures. In fact, amongst many in government, there was little understanding of what the international refugee legal system entailed. But the Nauruan government took seriously the building of a legal and commercial edifice for refugee processing. In 2015, when I conducted fieldwork in Nauru, the small country had become the newest signatory to the Convention. Three refugee processing centers topped the island’s once phosphate extraction atoll. A new courthouse specifically for refugee appeals claims opened to proud fanfare during my fieldwork. Refugee resettlement housing sprang up around the atoll’s urban fringe as more asylum seekers received refugee status for Nauru after assessment, paradoxically, by flown out Australian Immigration Department assessment personnel. Later, Nauru’s Justice, and now new Multicultural Minister, and Refugee Child Guardian, David Adeang said that Nauru had the infrastructure and systems in place for refugee processing in the long-term, and elicited other countries to join the determination and resettlement system on a more permanent basis (Round 2016).

But underneath the proud fanfare, hunger strikes, self-immolation attempts, self-harm and riots erupted on a constant basis. No refugee expected to find themselves on the small Pacific island, in indefinite limbo, unable to move beyond the island confines except through a resettlement offer to Cambodia; later, a US deal, available for only a small number of the refugee population.

Protests at a refugee resettlement housing compound in Nibok District. (May 2015 / Photo by Author)

At the same time, a great deal of resentment was felt by locals at the welfare system set up for refugees in Nauru. These feelings were enflamed by a constant cycle of ‘Close Nauru. Prison island’ campaigns, incidents such as the Guardian’s Nauru Leaks, reports like ‘Island of Despair.’ And comments such as: “regular - we're not talking several incidents. Regular, systematic attacks from local population. People are hacked with machetes,” said Amnesty’s Anna Neistat in interview on National Public Radio on 11 August, 2016 after flying to Nauru on a three-day ‘Refugee Mission.’ “Every single woman I spoke to told me that they cannot go out because now they're absolutely at the mercy of the locals.”

“They call our country a hellhole and accuse our government — which was recently democratically re-elected with an increased majority — of all sorts of things that are untrue,” wrote Nauru’s President Baron Waqa (2016) in The Australian response. One among many saddening posts on the local Facebook group, Refugees on Naoero - Nauru (2016), read:

☹ feeling defeated.

All I actually hear is bad things about Nauruan people; so much its hard for me to explain where I am from because every second person ends up bashing my country and just assuming that it's "a nothing country" (everyday when I worked at a supermarket I would get comments like this).

These statements reflect the feelings that I heard from many Nauruans and refugees during my fieldwork in the country about the global and activist discourse leveled on Nauruans.

At the same time, Nauru has also encountered many of the social disruptions and forms of dependency characteristic of the country’s colonial phosphate days. An influx of Australian officials into Nauruan government positions has been accompanied by local training in refugee legislation and determination processes in addition to courses in the particularities of working with refugees. But as with phosphate, refugees are a temporal resource. Nauru’s economic outlook is vulnerable to the scaling down of the RPCs, reliant on its larger neighbor for the importation of human bodies for profit.  As refugees are gradually transferred to other countries, the question then is surely what will become of Nauru?

An agenda of privatization has transformed Nauru’s financial status, institutional and regulatory mechanisms in line with Australian prerogatives. As part of the Memoranda of Understanding between Australia and Nauru, Nauru’s aid was contingent on the implementation of a public sector reform strategy, which would reduce the size of the Nauru public service. With a population of not more than 10,300, opportunities for competition between providers are limited. Privatization spells a shift from public to private monopoly as Nauru’s ruling elite consists of only a few prominent families. As part of the reforms, the government passed a prices regulation act in 2008 to cap prices of Nauru’s extortionately priced foods. But the influx of asylum seekers and Australian contractors has led to the skyrocketing of rents and food prices, in addition to pressure on limited water and gas supplies.

From ostentatious days of phosphate wealth, Nauru is still reliant on aid and borrowing. The latest data in June 2016 shows that public external debt is estimated at about AU$48 million (34 percent of GDP), consisting of loans from Taiwan Province of China, overdue fees and obligations to international organizations (IMF 2017). Public domestic debt is estimated at around AU$43 million (31 percent of GDP), after the government took on debt owed to customers of the liquidated Bank of Nauru.

The crucial point to be made here is how the logic of capital grinds out its path to govern minerals and migrants alike at exponential human cost. These dynamics are important to consider as governments the world over have looked to the Australian-style practice of turning back boats and offshoring asylum and resettlement operations. In an age of refugee demonization, Australia’s asylum models have been mooted as ‘solutions’ for European countries facing an influx of migrants (Ghezelbash 2018). Proposals for establishing offshore processing camps in countries neighboring the EU have spanned locations such as Albania, Ukraine, Morocco, and further afield to Northern and Central Africa. The Spanish enclave of Ceuta in Morocco already performs some of these operations, interdicting migrants arriving from Sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, under the EU-Turkey deal, Turkey accepts the return of asylum seekers and migrants in exchange for US$6.6 billion in aid (Kanter 2016). Similarly, the British government funds the Libyan coastguard to intercept migrant boats before their departure from Libyan waters. Such measures are used to exclude unwanted migrants (particularly asylum seekers and so-called ‘low skilled’ workers), or to stigmatize them so that they are forced to accept the most exploitative forms of irregular employment.

The new scramble for refugee warehousing sites should be viewed as part of a persistent cycle of extraction and expulsion. In this cycle, the forms of uneven development are ignited that forces people to move from their homes, while reinvigorating practices of imperial domination. At a financial cost of at least AU$5 billion, Nauru’s newest extractive endeavor has left a legacy of human suffering for both refugees and the people of Nauru. This adds to the multitude of stories of environmental and health degradations from Nauru’s phosphate years about extractive industries and the landscapes they leave behind. 


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