True to form, this week Nauru abruptly canceled the visas of three out of six Danish lawmakers shortly before they were to visit the tiny Pacific island nation and examine Australia’s offshore refugee processing operations there.
Two of the three parliamentarians, Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen and Jacob Mark, have publicly criticized Australia’s refugee operations on Nauru and on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. The third, Naser Khader, has not commented on Australia’s refugee policy but told the Sydney Morning Herald he believed the Nauruan government banned him because of his background. He was born in Syria, the homeland of many of the refugees.
Access to the island is severely restricted – Nauru has issued visas to only two journalists in the last three years, and just last week turned down a visa request from an Australian senator, Sarah Hanson-Young.
The Danish lawmakers’ visit was controversial in Denmark and Australia because one member of the delegation, Martin Henriksen, has stated that Australia’s offshore detention regime is “an interesting model” that could be replicated in Europe. Henriksen’s visa was not canceled. He could have gone ahead with the visit, but he and the other delegation members agreed that no one would travel to Nauru unless the full delegation was able to.
That’s the right call.
If the visit had gone ahead, the lawmakers would likely have struggled to conduct a credible investigation. In evaluating a detention setting, it’s all too easy to see only what you’re shown instead of working to uncover the real story. To get a complete picture, the delegation would have had to fact-check claims by Australian and Nauruan authorities. They would have had to assess the island’s medical care facilities, evaluate mental well-being, and examine whether the authorities investigate and prosecute assaults and other alleged crimes against the refugees. Importantly, they would have needed to talk in private settings to the people detained there.
Nauru’s actions tell the lawmakers that it has something to hide. As I saw when I spent seven days on the island for a joint Human Rights Watch/Amnesty International report, refugees and asylum seekers are routinely neglected by service providers hired by the Australian government. They have frequently been assaulted by local Nauruans, who go unpunished. They endure unnecessary delays and at times denial of medical care for even life-threatening conditions. Many have dire mental health problems and suffer overwhelming despair, with frequent self-harm and suicide attempts. The Guardian newspaper found similar evidence of abuse.
In the end, the Danish delegation may have learned more about Australia’s extraordinarily abusive offshore detention regime than if they had made it to Nauru. And that it is certainly no model for Europe.