The Nauru Question: Australia and the South Pacific’s ‘Ring of Steel’

By Tiger Shen


In 2007, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd thought he could bring an end to the ‘Pacific Solution’ with the end of Australian refugee policy in Nauru. For better or worse, he believed that the refugee question would be put to rest. And so too did many commentators, who hailed Rudd’s administration as a definitive end to a controversial period of Australian foreign policy.

Domestic and international opinion, understandably, was divided.

Richard Towle, the UNHCR’s Canberra-based regional representative, praised the move, saying: “The prompt decision by the new government to close the Nauru centre and bring the refugees to Australia is very welcome and shows Australia as a humane society in keeping with its international obligations”.

Yet while praised by critics of the ‘Pacific Solution’, opponents of the move were despondent; Liberal politician Chris Ellison, for example, feared for the weakening of national security and the encouragement of increased human trafficking as a result of less stringent detainee policy.

Rudd remained adamant; in a continuation of policy by the Howard Government, he sought to push back any refugee boats to Indonesia and utilise Christmas Island, an Australian territory, instead as a processing centre.  

For a brief moment, the island of Nauru slowly vanished from Australian politics.

And so, in 2007, Rudd’s government believed that Australia’s border had been secured. For a brief moment, the worry of refugees incarcerated on obscure offshore islands drifted away from the fore of the collective Australian and regional mentality. But the reality was far from thus. The re-opening of Nauru under the Gillard Government in reaction to a sudden surge of has only given us more questions rather than answers.

This article thus seeks to analyse the background to Australia’s refugee policy, as well as the role that Nauru has played as both a centre for the ‘Pacific Solution’ and a nation in its own right. Furthermore, we shall examine the nature of the Australia-Nauru relationship, considering the wider international reaction and criticisms of Australia’s implementation of a ‘ring of steel’ around the South Pacific. Finally, we will look towards the future, and any possible developments or resolutions to the divisive situation.

By offering this overview, it is hoped that a more rounded and multi-perspective understanding of the situation on the ground can gently coax us towards seeking a resolution for both the potential humanitarian and security crises at hand, one that has been ignored or swept aside for far too long.

Background to Nauru: Understanding Australia-Nauru Relations

Nauru is an island nation located Micronesia, approximately 4,500km to the northeast of the Australian continent. It is officially recognised as the smallest state in the Pacific Region, the smallest republic in the world, and the third smallest country by land area. Once one of the richest nations in the world by GDP, the end of lucrative phosphate mining crippled the economy and reduced the country into obscurity.

It would seem that humble Nauru would have little role to play on the world stage. But this is exactly where Australia comes in.

Many geopolitical commentators have viewed Nauru to be client state of Australia. But why must this be so? Thus, to understand the Australia’s role in Nauru today, we must look closer at the historical link between the two nations, and ask why exactly this Australian presence is so explicit. 

Australia has had a stake in Nauru since the early beginnings of the nation. In 1947, a trusteeship was granted by the United Nations to Australia, New Zealand and the UK, providing them de facto jurisdiction over the island; while the Nauru Island Agreement gave power of governance to all three governments, administration ultimately fell entirely to Australia. Nauru only has a civilian police force and no standing army, so today, Australia is also responsible for military affairs in Nauru.

Nauru has also relied throughout its history on Australia to fund national development. The Pacific Regional Assistance to Nauru (PRAN) Initiative is one example of such funding. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website points out that “Australia is Nauru’s most significant donor, providing developmental assistance equivalent to 25 per cent of Nauru’s gross domestic product in 2017-2018.”

There are three key objectives listed by the Department of Foreign Affairs:

-        Promoting more effective public sector management

-        Investing in nation building infrastructure

-        Supporting human development


Interestingly, the website of the Australia Government makes little acknowledgement of the refugee situation in Nauru and the deal with the Nauruan government over the implementation of Australian refugee policy within their borders.

            This is where the Australian relationship really come to light.

Under the ‘Pacific Policy’, since 2001, refugees attempting to enter Australia by boat are denied asylum in Australia and transported instead to Nauru, being detained at the Nauru Regional Processing Centre. The policy was inspired by the MV Tampa incident, where a Norwegian freighter picked up 400 Afghan refugees in waters off Christmas Island and attempted to drop them off in Australia, prompting a reaction from the Howard Government.  

In the past few years, approximately 77% of all migrants intercepted by the Australian ‘ring of steel’ are sent to Nauru; according to the Australian Border Force, as of July 2018, there are currently 189 detainees housed at the Processing Centre.

The correspondence of the Nauruan regime with the Australian presence is undeniable; it cannot be a coincidence that the Nauruan regime fell into chaos in 2007, coincidentally just as Rudd pulled the mat out from underneath the Nauru Regional Processing Centre. Nauru had criticised the Rudd government’s decision to shut down the centre, fearing a decrease in aid that would come with the end of the ‘Pacific Solution’. We must thus ask further questions as to Nauru’s own interests in the refugee centre. There are many aspects at play here which have simply not been made clear.  

Regional and International Views on the Nauru Question

Undeniably, the Nauru question has proven to be a rather problematic sticking point, offering challenges to local diplomatic relations as well as stimulating international discussion over fundamental questions of human rights.

Recently, at the Pacific Islands Forum hosted in Nauru, a New Zealand journalist was detained for asking questions on the refugee situation; while later released, Barbara Dreaver of TVNZ was later banned from any further coverage of the Forum. This censorship also raises interesting questions over Nauru’s own view on the Australian refugee processing within its own borders.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was also criticised for her apparent unwillingness to address the refugee situation the hung over the Forum in Nauru. Ardern reportedly claimed that the refuges in Nauru had “integrated into the community,” although she later confirmed to the New Zealand Herald that she didn’t actually meet any refugees.  

Studies and investigations by NGOs have offered damning insights on the refugee situation in Nauru, revealing tales of abuse, atrocious conditions and inadequate resources to deal with the needs of refugees housed there.

Both Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch have condemned the Nauru Regional Processing Centre, regarded the Australian policy as nothing short of illegal detention. Common to many of the investigations are the numerous concerns over children being detained in Nauru. The Moss Review of 2015 found that 17 children practised self-harm between 2013 and 2014 as a result of the traumatic experience at the refugee centre. The Review also found the inadequacies within the existing Nauruan criminal code to tackle issues of child protection.

There has been contention over this issue.

In 2014, ten Save the Children workers were sacked from their position in Nauru; the Australian government alleged that the workers were encouraging detainees to make false claims about the situation in refugee camps and practice self-harm.

All in all, we can safely conclude that the refugee situation in Nauru has proven contentious and potentially destructive. There has been a tangible to refusal to fully address the question, and, left too long, the problem has only festered.


What is Nauru’s future?

A growing domestic and international awareness of the problems with Nauru has brought some fresh developments in Nauru, with hopes that a new chapter may open in this rather troublesome and contentious story of Australian foreign policy.

A one-off refugee resettlement deal reached with the United States of America in 2016 has been touted by commentators as a potential answer to the awkward situation.

The Nauru Government, for one, has also expressed interest in this; Minister of Justice David Adeang stated that, “Under the original agreement Nauru was only ever a temporary home, and this has been a focus of our discussions with Australia for a long time. Finding appropriate countries is a key part of the success of the refugee processing and temporary settlement arrangements.”

Admittedly, resettlement could be a potential resolution; through the humanitarian lens, as NGOs have primarily viewed the issue, at the very least the detainees were being moved off to a potentially better environment, with facilities that could at least cater to refugee needs and allow integration into society. But while the urgent necessity to alleviate these human concerns cannot possibly be overstated, the geopolitical and diplomatic issues remained unresolved.

Given the nature of resettlement in America rather than Australia, is the Australian government simply deflecting the problem rather than actually seeking to address it? Is it justified in doing so? There are clearly also more domestic concerns at play here as well as the wider regional geopolitics, concerns that cannot merely be addressed through the framework of international diplomacy.

Since 2018, the new Morrison Government has faced internal pressure to move refugees out of Nauru and resettle in Australia. In October, several refugees were transferred to the mainland, justified under medical reasons rather than any change in policy. Refugee children detained in Nauru were also granted temporary, but not permanent residence in Australia.

Despite this recent pressure on the Australian government to allow the resettlement of refugees domestically, the Australian Home Minister Peter Dutton reiterated that Australia has no desire to offer the refugees a permanent home, banning any resettled migrants from Australia. Instead, the Morrison government has proposed New Zealand as a potential partner in resettlement, a policy that has not been well received by New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters.

Yet even if resettlement would provide an end to Australian policy in Nauru, be it in Australia, New Zealand or elsewhere, there are still so many questions to be answered.

Primarily, what happens with Nauru next?

Considering the complex historical links between the two nations, can we speculate that Nauru has become more or less reliant on the Australian presence? What would happen if the Australian government pulled their refugee operations out? Would it leave the region in limbo? Would Australia continue offering the dramatic amount of funding that they currently provide to Nauru should the refugee program come to an end?

We cannot predict the future; we can only follow these developments between the Australian, Nauruan and other regional governments as they occur.  

Tiger Shen is a second-year student at Oxford University, where he is studying History. He was the journal’s South Pacific Correspondent from 2017 - 2018.

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