Nauru, Representation of Refugees, Settlement Options and Political Stakes.

By: Dominique, Brayden and Ashley.

Representation of asylum seekers and those seeking refuge in Australia.


Australia is not unfamiliar with the arrival of asylum seekers by boat. In fact the phenomenon is so incredibly common that those arriving in this way are often just referred to as “boat people” and grouped together regardless of their country of origin or the reasons for their asylum claims. 

Asylum seekers have been arriving in Australia by boat since 1977, when many individuals were fleeing Southeast Asia, especially from Vietnam (Mann, 69). We have highlighted in previous presentations how Australian policy has changed toward these arrivals, becoming increasingly more restrictive over the years, until the culmination in 2001 with the Tampa crisis which began the new age of Australia’s Pacific Solution. 

All this is an important recap to understand the representation of asylum seekers in Australia, specifically those being detained on Nauru in the present day. 


One of the biggest factors that plays a role in the representation of asylum seekers on Nauru is the position of the Australian government. Australian policy is what redirected the asylum seekers to the offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island, and continues to have a huge effect on how they are seen, what information about their lives in shared and how they live. 

In 2001, after the Tampa crisis, the Australian Prime Minister John Howard stated that it was “in Australia’s national interest [to] draw a line on what [was] increasingly becoming an uncontrollable number of illegal arrivals in [the] country”. Following this the Parliament of Australia released a report, regarding the mandatory detention program which had been in place in Australia since 1992 in light of the new decisions stating that “The fundamental rationale for detention in Australia, especially of unauthorized boat arrivals, has been that it is necessary in order to maintain the ‘integrity’ of our borders and of the migration program” (Parliament of Australia, 2001). According to the beliefs of the Howard Administration, and the Australian Liberal Party asylum seekers represented a danger to Australia. While we cannot hide the fact that public discourse and political timing had an effect on the decisions that were made – a federal election was on the verge of taking place, and the public had expressed a fear towards the high arrival of asylum seekers – the actions still spoke loud words on the Australian Parliament’s opinion of asylum seekers. 

Through Australian policy making, asylum seekers were rebranded as “unlawful non-citizens”, which does not carry the same semantic heaviness as the term “illegal immigrant” but represents a nearly identical category. The new policy of detention on Nauru fed into a climate of fear, which painted the asylum seekers as a threat to Australian security and autonomy. The changing of governments from Liberal to Labor brought a lot of policy changes, including the end of the Pacific Solution, and for a short amount of time the government worked to aid the asylum seekers, rather than create and promote fear. However the government stance today reflects more closely the stance of the Liberal government in 2001. The reopening of the processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island have reignited a climate of fear and xenophobia amongst the Australian population and have worked to represent asylum seekers arriving by boat as harmful to Australian interests. 


The public discourse in Australia about refugees is even more interesting to look at. 

(In a completely non-related note to the presentation, these statistics are really interesting and all encompassing and anyone interested simply in looking at them entirely can reference them here: )

Obviously public discourse and government action go hand in hand. As governments make actions they affect the public, and the public’s responses to certain policies – whether restrictive or lenient – inform the next decisions the government makes. The public was critical of the Howard Administration for their leniency with asylum seekers arriving by boat, and so the government response was to tighten policy. 

The Lowy Institute is an Australian institution that conducts significant research on the public opinion in various topics. Their Diplomacy and Public Opinion Program began in 2005 and runs yearly surveys asking the Australian public how they feel about certain diplomatic and political measures. 

In 2018, when asked to rank what the most dangerous threats to Australia “Large Numbers of Immigrants and Refugees Coming into Australia” appeared in the top 10 fears of the public. 40% of responders listed this as a critical threat while another 37% believe that it is an important threat but not critical.  

This next graph shows the division of responders listing Immigration and Refugees as a critical threat by age group. What is perhaps nice to notice is that younger demographics see it as less of a threat than the older age groups. This could be a sign of an upcoming change in public representation of asylum seekers. 

The final graph is perhaps the most interesting to analyze, as it shows the number of individuals who agree with Australia’s policies to turn away boat arrivals and to the policy of holding individuals on Nauru and Manus Island. The majority of people are in agreement with the policy, and this has remained steady over years. 

These statistics are telling of how asylum seekers arriving by boat are represented by both the Australian government and the Australian media as public opinion is easily shaped by the discourses seen in media and parliament. 

Settlement options/outcomes

What sparked the change on Nauru? The movement that erupted to get people off of the island emerged with force after news began to spread of the increasing mental health crisis, especially among children. I am going to say this will be very upsetting just to give warning, Children on the Island of Nauru are reported to be suffering from Traumatic withdrawal syndrome or resignation syndrome, reports of self harm and suicide attempts among young children are out of our scope of understanding. One young girl named Sajeenthana who was sent to Nauru with her father at the age of three after escaping Sri Lanka was interviewed at the age of eight about her behaviours of violence and vacancy she said “ One day I will kill myself, wait and see when I find the knife I don’t care about my body , it is the same as if I were in war or here”.

Pictured below is Sajeenthana, 8 with her father during the New York Times Interview

Another young boy by the name of Sam, Sam was forced to flee Iran at the age of sixteen and was detained on Nauru for six years, attached are some of his drawings from his time spent on the island. I found Sam’s story on twitter, attached is his change. Org fundraiser page to bring him to Canada. 

One of Sams Drawings.
Another of Sams Drawings. link,

These images and stories provide the background for why Nauru is so horrific and disastrous to refugees and human rights claims alike. 

The medical evac  law was passed in march of 2019 , and it requires two doctor authorization for a transfer to Australia.  To really drive home how terrifying the Australian refugee policy is, the government spent in one fiscal quarter 480,000 challenging or responding to medical transfers in court and over the course of the entire 2017/2018 year they only spent 275,000. 

Resettlement from Nauru is horrifically under resourced, under the Obama Administration they agreed to resettle around 1200 refugees from Nauru , although Trump called it a ‘Dumb Deal’ he is still sticking to the agreement and so far around 632 refugees have been resettled , unfortunately however with the restrictions in place on US policy for admitting refugees people such as Sajeenthana and her father were denied entry to the United states. Although medically transferred and staying in Australia their future is still very uncertain. Australia is refusing to resettle anyone on Australian soil and families are scattered in facilities across the country that are still very reminiscent of detention centers, and these families are still classified as transitory persons, still unable to start their lives anew. The government has also not agreed to New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 refugees per year and over the course of two years and as of a guardian article written in Dec 2019 still  have not accepted this deal, from the information available it seems to be because New Zealand wants Australia to allow for some refugees and asylum seekers to settle there. From an Al Jazeera article in 2019 it specified that the last children have departed from Nauru and are on their way to the united states, nineteen in total left, including the last four children 

In Canada there are organizations stepping in to aid in the relocation of some of these refugees , such as Change. Org, in Sam’s case, Operation not forgotten and Australian Diaspora steps up, however in terms of other areas private sponsorship I was unable to find any information. All of the links for support are attached to the blog post 

As of 2020 the most recent evidence that I could find was from the Guardian, published Feb 15 2020 which stated that 230 people remained on Nauru and the international criminal courts prosecutor concluded that the violation did not rise to the level of further investigation although they did form the basis for crimes against humanity.

Political Stakes

In the era of the global war on terror and subsequent implementation of securitization measures around the world, Australia has sought to restrict access to its sovereign territory in order to appease its citizens’ concerns surrounding the threat of global terrorism. As previously mentioned in our group’s prior blog post/presentation, the Australian government excised much of its territory from its migration zone, thereby restricting the space in which one could apply for asylum (Dickson, 440). While this gave the Australian government the right to remove non-citizens from its territory, the principle of non-refoulement dictated that Australia could not force these refuge-seekers to return to states in which they faced persecution. In turn, this meant that the Australian government would either have to process these refuge-seekers or detain them – and in this vein, the implementation of offshore detention centres far from the Australian public makes more sense.

Concurrently, Australia has long been one of the world’s most affluent countries, with a GDP per capita amongst the highest in the world. In comparison, prior to the implementation of the “Pacific Solution” Nauru was one of the world’s most impoverished countries, as the small, remote island-nation was in an economic recession that had lasted for years (Takahashi). Recognizing their wealth disparity with their island neighbour, the government of Australia promised to increase their foreign aid – but only if Nauru agreed to host a detention centre for refuge-seekers. As Australian foreign aid already accounted for over 10% of Nauru’s GDP, the government was given no choice but to acquiesce to Australia’s demands (Takahashi). Subsequently, Nauru’s GDP has multiplied by a factor of 6 since 2001 due to Australian aid, but the country has grown even more dependent on these funds as Australian aid currently makes up over 20% of Nauru’s GDP, and its withdrawal would most likely cause a devastating recession (The World Bank, Australian Department of Foreign Affairs). As a consequence of this dependency, the island of Nauru has become increasingly corrupt, and its political leadership seeks to maintain the offshore detention centre on the island in order to maintain the island’s main source of income (Davidson).

While the government of Nauru may be happy to detain these refuge-seekers, the international community has repeatedly condemned it. In 2013, the UNHCR visited both Nauru and Manus Island and concluded that the centres were a breach of international standards. And in 2014, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment publicly criticized the Australian government, as its Pacific Solution had “counteracted its obligation to the Convention Against Torture by failing to protect asylum seekers” (Dickson, 447). In the face of international pressure, the Australian government doubled-down on its Pacific Solution. The government invested hundreds of millions of dollars into its navy and coast guard, and ensured that these forces had the resources necessary to continue to interdict refuge-seekers. The government was so committed to this goal that it gave the navy authorization to repeatedly infringe on the sovereign territorial waters of other states, such as Indonesia (Dickson, 447). Despite criticism from other states, as well as leading NGOs and humanitarian organizations, Australia was given a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 (Roth). This further emboldened the Australian government to disregard their international obligations, and the international community’s objections.

While the Australian government has been able to avoid international consequences for its Pacific Solution, Australia’s domestic situation is more complicated. As a liberal democracy, the government is subject to routine elections and therefore needs to attract voters to remain in power. As the graphs above indicate, the Australian public was very much in favour of the measures implemented as part of the Pacific Solution. It is important to note, however, that the polls were taken prior to, and shortly after, the inhumane treatment within the detention centres slowly became public knowledge, which can potentially explain the slight decline from 2014 to 2016. It is therefore no surprise that since the Pacific Solution’s reimplementation the Australian government has sought to restrict access to information. These efforts culminated in the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders to release a report condemning the Australian government for attempting “to undermine the Australian Human Rights Commission, and [for] how activists face ‘enormous pressure’ and vilification from public officials” (Roth). Nonetheless, activists increasingly raise attention to the mistreatment of refuge-seekers, and public support for both the opposition and the government has continued to rise.

Central to the Pacific Solution’s effectiveness is deterrence, whereby the government’s hope is that refuge-seekers will pursue alternative solutions to Australia due to the fact that the possibility of getting caught and spending years in prison-like conditions is less attractive than whatever situation they live in currently (Dickson, 439). While the previous Coalition government made concessions to the opposition (due to their 1-seat majority in Parliament), in which some of the detained refuge-seekers would be processed and allowed to resettle in nations such as the US and New Zealand, upon their re-election in 2019 the Coalition government announced plans to repeal and renegotiate their previous arrangements (McGowan). As a consequence, hundreds of individuals remain in detention in a state of fear, with one refuge-seeker stating that “all of us [are] worried that we will be forgotten under this government and just abandoned [here] forever. We don’t know what our future is, our life is in limbo” (McGowan). It appears as that so long as the Coalition government is able to hold on to power domestically within Australia, then it will continue to disregard international objections to the implementation of its Pacific Solution, and refuge-seekers will continue to be harmed as a result.


Works cited Representation of refugees 

Mann, Itamar. “Between Moral Blackmail and Moral Risk” in Humanity At Sea, 2016. Pp. 134-162

Lowy Institute. Diplomacy and Public Opinion Program Poll 2018. 

Betts, Katharine. “Boat people and public opinion in Australia” People and Place. 2001. 

Metcalfe, Susan. “The Pacific Solution” 2010. 

Works cited settlement options.

The Nauru Experience: Zero-Tolerance Immigration and Suicidal Children, Mridula Amin and Isabella Kwai Nov. 5, 2018

‘Australia’s loss is America’s gain’: the Nauru and Manus refugees starting anew in the US,Anne Richard, Jan 2019.

Australia United States Resettlement Deal, Kaldor Center For International Refugee Law,

Refugees, including children, leave Nauru for the US, February 2019,

Children will be brought to Australia from Nauru, but they won’t be allowed to stay 

 Helen Regan,November, 2018

Transferring Asylum Seeker Families to Nauru-Human Rights Report, September, 2019

Offshore Processing Statistics, Refugee Council, 2019 

US believed Australia would take more refugees in exchange for Nauru and Manus deal Helen Davidson November 2018, The Guardian,

Australians in Canada Step Up to Help, The diplomat, November 2019,

  • Relocation in canda some refusals from areas 

Operation Not Forgotten, Canada Cares, 

Jacinda Ardern tells Scott Morrison New Zealand remains open to resettling Nauru refugees, The guardian, Katharine Murphy, Dec 2019

Works Cited Politiocal Stakes 

Davidson, H. (2019, April 24). Nauru Denies Former President’s Claim Offshore Detention Deal Led to Corruption. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Dickson, Andonea. “Distancing Asylum Seekers from the State: Australia’s Evolving Political 

Geography of Immigration and Border Control.” Australian Geographer 46, no. 4 (October 2, 

2015): 437–454.

McGowan, M. (2019, May 30). Where Does the Coalition’s Re-Election Leave Refugees on Manus and Nauru? The Guardian. Retrieved from

Overview of Australia’s Aid program to Nauru. (n.d.). Retrieved from


Takahashi, K. (2015, May 28). An Economic Tale from a Country that had no Plan B. Nikkei 

Asian Review. Retrieved from

The World Bank – Nauru. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Roth, K. (2020, January 7). World Report 2019: Rights Trends in Australia. Retrieved from

14 thoughts on “Nauru, Representation of Refugees, Settlement Options and Political Stakes.

  1. I really liked the graphs you included showing the statistics around how Australians perceive this issue, especially the ones showing a generational divide. I also find it interesting to see how Australia has avoided consequences on the international level for the detention centres on the island of Nauru, but domestically there has been a political price to pay.

    In your research, have you noticed if there has been a change in representation or in public opinion over the course of the last couple of decades (since the Tampa crisis)? Has public opinion become more or less supportive of detention centres such as Nauru and do you see policies like those that led to Nauru continuing?


    1. In my research it looks as though the mental health epidemic and the pictures that have begun to circulate about the conditions on Nauru have severely shifted public attitude. Due to how public this has been in regards to the media and journalism efforts I do not think that these policies will be continued, however the fear based rhetoric being spread by politicians and civilians alike leaves that up to debate. This practise could continue as it ” protects public interest”.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A lot of really interesting research that I came across was in the Lowy Institute Polls, which have been collecting data since 2005. The questions asked are not exactly the same over the years, but it they are similar. What has been interesting is that in more recent years, although immigration and boat refugees is seen as a “danger” in public opinion, it falls lower on the list every year, and other issues (such as climate change) have risen to higher importance. I can hope this is good news!
        The other interesting thing is that the public opinion on refugees arriving by boat has not changed despite fluctuating numbers of boat people arriving. Meaning even as more people have arrived (in recent years) the number of non-supporters (i.e. the number of people wanting these asylum seekers to be turned away) has not risen. This shows at least that the current events have not had a huge impact on spiking fear, but rather the situation is, at the very least, kept neutral.
        As Ashley said, it seems that the public is becoming neutral to more supportive of ending the current detention policies.


  2. I also have a question about refugee representation! Are the stories of refugees at all present in the media? For example, testimonials from those who have been resettled etc.


    1. I am also very interested in the rhetorical distinction between “unlawful non-citizens” and “illegal immigrants.” Did you see the media picking up on that distinction at all? Do you have any thoughts on why the government chose to call refuge-seekers “non-citizens”?


      1. I believe that the name ‘unlawful non citizen’ was a pampering of the word illegal immigrant to maintain the imagery of a humanitarian or lenient government. The media in terms of Nauru is very sympathetic and focused more on the humanitarian issues rather than the rhetoric, no outlet I have found other than scholarly sources from our previous presentation picked up on that distinction.


    2. I have not been super diligent actively seeking these out, which is something that I for sure will think of next time, so thanks for the idea! I do know that I have passively come across some stories of asylum seekers, although many of those I’ve come across have been from the first round of Pacific Solution (from 2001-2008). There is a really good book from the library at uOttawa that addresses the situation of one particular Afghan asylum seeker named Ali, and his story in whole, as well as a lot of journalists who enter Nauru for reporting reasons often bring some personal stories back with them which make their way into the news articles.
      Again, I’ll definitely keep looking for these.


  3. I really liked your blogpost! I am curious as to why Australia initially rejected New Zealand’s offer to resettle refugees. How was the Australian government able justify this? Also, does Nauru have any control of the number of refugees placed in detention centre’s within their own borders? While I recognize that it may not have been in their economic interest to do so, would they have been able to agree to New Zealand’s offer?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I honestly was not able to find a lot of information about why Australia did not want to agree to New Zealands deal, from what I understood from what I could find was they New Zealand wanted Australia to settle refugees within their boarders as well, which they refuse to do .In terms of detention centers within their boarders it seems like they are camp like in nature, in terms of allowing for medical care however ensuring that those within the boarders do not begin to make a life in Australia. Each refugee I believe has to apply for visas in other countries such as the US or Canada and wait in Australia until they are able to actually fully start their life elsewhere

      Liked by 1 person

  4. 1) To what extent has public opinion contributed to the Australian Parliament’s stance on asylum seekers? And vice-versa: how has government discourse shaped public opinion vis-a-vis asylum-seekers?

    My questions aim specifically at whether you think that public attitudes towards asylum seekers have been heavily influenced by the government or if the government response has been heavily influenced by the public (since you mention the federal election taking place); or, is it a combination of both parties disseminating and legitimating each other’s anti-asylum sentiments? In short, what does this dynamic look like in practice?

    2) It’s disheartening to hear about the abject conditions in which children have been placed in Nauru. Are medical transfers the only way for them to access mental healthcare and health services in general? Are humanitarian organizations allowed to provide medical assistance to these children? I recall from your first presentation that journalists were required to pay hefty sums in order to visit Nauru – was this also the case with aid groups, or were they denied entry to the island altogether?

    3) Regarding the petition, do you think that Commonwealth countries should have a responsibility-sharing agreement relating to asylum seekers? I’m thinking about Canada’s political similarities with Australia (minus the strongly anti-asylum policies of course). Would such a solution be beneficial or would it create more problems for refuge-seekers?

    4) When Australia was on the Human Rights Council, did it sponsor any resolutions pertaining to refugees or asylum seekers? I realize this may fall outside the scope of your research, but I’m curious about what measures Australia supported while it was on the Council and if any stand out to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ve asked a number of really good questions! In response to number 4 specifically (as that’s the only one I’m really familiar with, my apologies), when Australia was elected to the UN Human Rights Council it was hoped that as a highly developed and influential nation they would be willing to utilize their soft power to pressure regimes into action. While Australia has taken some steps in the defence of human rights, such as securing the freedom of detained journalists in Bahrain and Myanmar, as well as voicing concerns over Brunei’s anti-LGBT penal code, for the most part Australia’s tenure on the Council has been met with criticism. Advocates note that Australia often prefers “quiet diplomacy” when it comes to promoting human rights, including attempts to tie human rights to other diplomatic interests of theirs in closed-door meetings, and critics think that public pressure in conjunction with other states would be more effective. For the most part, however, while on the Council Australia tended to vote for country-specific resolutions, but then failed to adequately act on these.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I really liked the polls that you used in this post. I think it showcased well how public opinion and lack of knowledge can allow for governments to mistreat minority groups. In terms of refugee representations, are there any organizations/ diaspora groups that are trying to change the Australian public opinion on detainment practises?


  6. So I was interested to understand Australia’s demographic composition and found out that Australia does not collect racialized demographic data. So given the context of having had the “White Australia Policy”, relatively high levels of public belief in a threat from large scale immigration, have you noticed any impact that would have on perceptions of immigrants/refugees? Do for instance certain nationalities receive quicker processing time or easier access to regular immigration avenues?

    Is there a public distinction between “boat peoples” i.e. immigrants/refugees arriving by what can be seen as irregular means vs. immigrants that approach through official channels?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Really good use of the Lowy Institute data. I also liked the attention to children’s perspective and the inclusion of their (very disturbing) artwork. I’m wondering if you could flesh out the ambiguous position of the International Criminal Court prosecutor declaring, on the one hand, that Australian detention practices constitute a crime against humanity, but on the other hand, not prosecuting the crime.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: