Change of role.
Full-time Religious Liaison Officer (RLO) with the job of ensuring that the religious and faith needs of the asylum seekers were met.
In the four months since my last visit, the Processing Centre underwent a huge change. Most of the old green ex-Army tents made way for pre-fab double story accommodation blocks housing 80+ men. These were a vast improvement on the tents: 2 to a room instead of 8-10 to a tent, bunk beds replaced stretchers, a lockable cabinet for each man to hang clothes and store personal items, flyscreens on all windows and doors.
Every week a local priest would hold mass in the centre for 80-90 Catholics. It was wonderful to see how the men had transformed an old green tent with a tacked on marquee into a sacred space in the middle of a Processing Centre on a little island in the Pacific Ocean. The men would leave their thongs at the entrance to the “Chapel”, lined up around the edge of the duckboard flooring. As I sat at the back of the chapel one Friday I was struck by the importance of sacred spaces for people of faith and they could and would be created regardless of circumstances.
There was one other large green tent in the Centre which was used for extra English classes and occasional group meetings between stake-holders (government, welfare, infrastructure and medical) and the asylum seekers. These meeting were usually held in cultural groups with a couple of interpreters. The purpose of these meetings was to be a forum for the men to give feedback regarding the services provided. Looking back this was farcical as the conditions were primitive and the stakeholders couldn’t do enormously more than they already were given the limitations of the island, transport constraints, and regulations of both Nauruan and Australian governments.
At the first of these meetings I attended as RLO each stake-holder rep gave a brief talk about what service they provided and then the floor was open for questions. The men were much less interested in getting longer showers than they were in finding out about their refugee determination processing. One man spoke at length about this; all he really wanted to know: how long will I be here? The immigration official then said words I will never forget and that caused me to hang my head in embarrassment and shame. He told the group that in effect although the Australian government had transferred these men to Nauru to comply with Australian government policy, it was not the responsibility of the Australian government to process them; it was the responsibility of the government of Nauru. The stark and unpalatable reality of the situation struck me like a blow: these people who had fled persecution in their own country and had sought asylum in ours were now basically being discarded by the very people who they had turned to for aid.
I was appalled and for the first time in my life ashamed to be an Australian. I love Australia. I think it is the best place in the world to live. And so obviously did these asylum seekers, and we, the citizens of said best country, washed our hands of any responsibility for their refugee processing.
Later that year, in an attempt to keep separate those who had been transferred to Nauru prior to July 19 2013 and those who arrived under a different policy after that date, that man and most of the other 400 men on the centre at that time were transferred back to Australia and are now having their refugee determination processed under Australian law! In a wonderful postscript, I have met this man again in Australia where he is living on a bridging visa.
Justice still has her day