NAURU, NAURU, Sept 2, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – Pacific leaders meet in Nauru to
discuss regional challenges this week, with the host nation keen to deflect
attention from its Canberra-funded migration detention camp dubbed
“Australia’s Guantanamo” by critics.
Official talks at the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) will centre on
the threat climate change poses to island states and China’s rising influence
in the region.
But the presence of the detention centre looms large as the four-day
meeting opens Monday, amid calls from rights groups such as Amnesty
International to close a facility it calls “a stain on the region”.
“Pacific island leaders cannot ignore this issue any longer and need to
ensure that it is at the very top of the forum’s agenda,” Amnesty said after
releasing an open letter co-signed with 80 other non-governmental
The camp houses around 220 asylum-seekers, including more than a dozen
children, who have tried to reach Australia by boat.
Under Canberra’s hardline immigration policies, such people are processed
in remote facilities on Nauru and Papua New Guinea to prevent them setting
foot on the Australian mainland.
The UN Human Rights Commission says they face indefinite detention,
labelling their treatment “harsh and cruel”.
However, Australia says offshore processing is needed to stop the deaths
that occur when people-smugglers cram asylum-seekers into rickety boats for
the treacherous sea voyage.
The camp is an economic lifeline for Nauru, which has a population of
11,000 and scant natural resources.
– Climate change ‘greatest threat’ –
In unprecedented restrictions, the government has warned visiting
journalists covering the PIF it will revoke their visas if they report on the
“You are only authorised to report on, or take photos or videos of the PIF.
Any other subjects must be approved by the RON (Republic of Nauru),” it said.
Such heavy handed tactics have only taken the spotlight off other concerns
raised by PIF members in the lead-up to the summit — chief among them
“Climate change represents the single greatest threat to the livelihoods,
security and wellbeing of our people,” PIF Secretary General Meg Taylor said.
Some of the PIF’s small island nations fear they will sink beneath rising
seas, while others are regularly battered by devastating storms fuelled by
the changing climate.
A major aim of this year’s summit is establishing a $1.5 billion fund to
help the region respond to climate change, as well as disasters such as
Known as Biketawa Plus, it would be used to strengthen essential
infrastructure such as hospitals, power stations and ports that are
vulnerable in disasters.
It will also cement existing security arrangements involving the PIF’s
largest members, Australia and New Zealand.
Reports in Australia said the move was seen as a way to counter China’s
influence in the region, which has grown dramatically in recent years as its
foreign aid programme has expanded.
Canberra and Wellington have boosted their Pacific aid contributions in
response and will be working frantically on the sidelines of the summit to
ensure they maintain support in a region they regard as their backyard.
Other issues on the table include fighting obesity in the world’s fattest
region and managing economically important tuna stocks.
– ‘Damaging’ Aussie snub –
Yet in a country with an area of just 21 square kilometres (eight square
miles) — the world’s smallest island nation — it will be difficult for
delegates to ignore the asylum-seeker camp.
One visitor who has taken a keen interest in the refugees is New Zealand
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, whose offer to accept 150 of them has been
rejected by Australia and Nauru.
Ardern has not ruled out visiting the camp while she is in Nauru.
“I have a hope, an expectation at least, that I will at least be given an
opportunity to be exposed to some of the issues around refugees on the
island,” she told reporters.
“What form that takes is not yet clear.”
Ardern’s newly installed Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, has
decided against attending the summit after taking power in the wake of a
bitter internal revolt that ended Malcolm Turnbull’s tenure as leader.
Lowy Institute foreign policy specialist Euan Graham said Morrison’s
absence risked undermining Australia’s bid to revive its diplomatic ties in
“Downgraded representation at the PIF would be especially damaging, given
that the point of Canberra’s ‘step up’ in the Pacific is all about
demonstrating momentum behind Australia’s renewed commitment to the region,”
he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.