The tiny island nation of Nauru, a 21 square kilometre speck of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean just south of the Equator, today finds itself at the centre of the controversial immigration policy of Australia, its vast and increasingly vigilant neighbour. Following an agreement with the Australian government in 2001, a detention centre built in Nauru to hold illegal migrants who had entered Australia without a visa or were apprehended at sea on their way there. Since the 1990s, successive Australian governments have been tinkering with the country's immigration policy, in an attempt to limit the influx of illegal immigrants, or so-called 'boat people', who arrive on Australia's shores and claim asylum. Yet the current policy, sometimes referred to as the 'Pacific Solution', of detaining would be immigrants at facilities in neighbouring countries, is a regular source of adverse publicity for Australia. Nauru was once one of the richest countries in the world with a phosphate industry that accounted for 80% of the national economy until around 2000, when reserves started to run out. After independence in 1968, the government arranged for a part of the phosphate windfall to go to the population, allowing many to live in affluence at home, buy houses abroad and send their children to expensive foreign boarding schools. The depletion of phosphate reserves, however, and the devastation of the island's environment through wholesale strip mining of its surface, have led to a sudden and catastrophic downturn of fortunes.
For a few years, Nauru tried to sell itself as a tax haven which lead to accusations of illegal money laundering. It was also involved in the sale of passports and diplomatic favours such as the recognition of Abkhazia's and South Ossetia's independence in exchange for $ 50 million from Russia in 2008 following its war with Georgia. Australia's proposal of making Nauru a de-facto off-shore detention centre in 2001 therefore came as a welcome opportunity to replenish the public purse.
The centre, which was initially intended for around 800 people, has now been operating for over 13 years and usually houses over 1,000 inmates, including whole families. Another facility on the island of Manus in Papua New Guinea has been heavily criticised after a number of fatalities in 2014.
Over the years, Nauru's detention centre has been mired in controversy with frequent cases of self harm, suicide attempts and hunger strikes with allegations surfacing in 2014 of child abuse by security staff at the centre and rising concerns about the mental health of detainees. People kept in the Refugee Processing Centre for months after arrival are often kept in tents which have no air-conditioning and get unbearably hot in the tropical climate. Even pregnant women and children are housed in these conditions and there are only eight toilets for a total of 400 people. Detainees are allowed to use the showers for only two or three minutes a day and on some days there's no direct access to drinking water.
Even if an asylum application is successful, former detainees are not completely free on the tiny island and are required to sleep in the community based camps.
Only couples with children sleep in the same room. Others are accommodated in separate dorms. The rooms are small and the communal kitchen is mostly overcrowded, so many people cook on the floor in their rooms. With unemployment close to 90%, it's almost impossible for foreigners to find work. A few lucky ones help unloading shipping containers for which they are paid around 3 or 4 dollars a day. Competition for the few jobs that are available has led to rising tensions between locals and refugees. In 2013, a riot at the detention centre caused A$ 60 million worth of damage and in 2014, after an Australian government announcement that none of the detainees on Nauru would be resettled in Australia, several detainees sewed their lips shut in protest. Vlad Sokhin is one of only a handful of journalists to have gained access to Nauru's immigration facilities.