Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Nauruan, English, others (including a variety of Pacific and Asian languages with small numbers of speakers). Nauruan is the most widely spoken language, with 95 per cent of the population able to speak it, followed by English (66 per cent) and other languages, including Kiribati (6 per cent) and Chinese (2 per cent). The large majority speak mainly Nauruan in their own households.
Main religions: Nauru Congregational Church (36 per cent), Roman Catholic (33 per cent), Assembly of God (13 per cent), Nauru Independent (10 per cent), Baptist (1 per cent) Seventh Day Adventist (less than 1 per cent), Jehovah’s Witness (less than 1 per cent).
Main minority and indigenous communities: Nauruan (58 per cent), other Pacific Islander (26 per cent), Chinese (8 per cent), European (8 per cent).
Until the effective closure of the phosphate mine in 2005 and collapse of the Nauru government, there were many migrant workers, mainly from neighbouring Kiribati and Tuvalu.
Updated January 2018
While Nauru is a parliamentary democracy and the Constitution theoretically protects the rights and freedoms of Nauruan citizens, there have been some significant setbacks with regard to the island nation’s democratic space, including the passing of the Criminal Code (Amendment) Bill 2015. Allegedly developed to curb language that is ‘threatening, abusive or insulting in nature and has the intention to stir up racial, religious or political hatred’, critics accuse the government in practice of using the legislation to crack down on dissent. The government has used similar morality arguments to justify other repressive measures, including its attempt during the year to block Facebook, although refugee advocates have claimed the move was to prevent residents of its controversial asylum detention centre from speaking out about their conditions.
While traditionally Nauruan clans have been matrilineal, with property passing to female rather than male heirs and providing women with a measure of domestic influence, in practice many occupy a marginalized position within society – a situation reflected in the fact that the country has only had two elected female MPs.
Nauru has received widespread criticism for its involvement in Australia’s offshore refugee detention centres, including allegations of unreasonable delays in processing claims, harsh living conditions, violence and sexual abuse.
Violence against women remains a key issue for Nauru. While a lack of readily available data makes conclusions difficult, there is a general perception that it is in fact increasing in frequency. While some new policy measures are being developed by the government to tackle this problem, it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of these measures in reducing violence against women. The issue of sexual assault against women, in particular those who are now being held on Nauru under Australia’s offshore asylum policy, was highlighted by a high-profile case that came to light in October 2015, when a 23-year-old Somali refugee was sexually assaulted on Nauru. Known as Abyan, she allegedly became pregnant as a result of the assault on the island and requested to travel to Australia, as abortion remains an illegal procedure on Nauru. But after spending five days in immigration detention in Australia, immigration minister Peter Dutton publicly stated that Abyan had decided not to proceed with the abortion and was sent back to Nauru, without the procedure having been carried out. Abyan denied that she had changed her mind, and her lawyers said she had simply asked for more time to make a decision. There have been calls for an independent commission into the handling of the case.
A key issue is lack of transparency. Journalists seeking to report about the refugee detention centre on Nauru complain that media visas are extremely expensive and the processing unclear. In 2015, the Australian government passed the Australian Border Force Act which criminalizes any leaks made by staff at the detention centre about conditions there. They can face up to two years’ imprisonment.
Nevertheless, reports of severe human rights abuses against asylum seekers and refugees in Nauru continue to occur, with close to 50 refugees being held in detention in August 2017 denied the right to leave Nauru for essential health care treatment, surgeries and other interventions. Three women seeking to terminate their pregnancies had been denied transfer overseas for the procedure, despite the fact that their doctors had recommended that they should be allowed to go ahead (abortion is illegal in Nauru). The poor treatment and limited access to support services has had a deleterious impact on the mental health of refugees being held in Nauru, with a number of suicides reported on the island, including incidents of self-immolation. Until its decriminalization in May 2016 attempted suicide was a criminal offence in Nauru: prior to that, two refugees who had attempted suicide were prosecuted, imprisoned and fined by authorities.
In an attempt to resolve the offshore processing issue, the US administration under former President Barack Obama signed a deal with the Australian government in 2016 for a refugee ‘swap’ where the US would take up to 1,250 refugees from Nauru and the other offshore detention centre on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. This would be in exchange for Australia’s taking Central American refugees from a US centre in Costa Rica. However, the deal was thrown into doubt by the US’s new President, Donald Trump, who said that he would only honour it to maintain good relations with a key ally – and only after the refugees met strict controls. Further doubts emerged during July 2017 when US immigration officials left the detention centre early, although the Australian government stated that it believed the deal would still be implemented.
Updated January 2018
Nauru is a raised coral atoll in the Pacific Ocean. A large part of the island was composed of phosphate.
For around three millennia, Nauru was settled by a dozen Melanesian and Polynesian tribes who lived in relative peace until the arrival of Europeans in the 19th century, bringing with them guns and alcohol. Following a bloody internal war, Nauru became a German protectorate in 1886 and was subsequently overseen in various forms of trusteeship by Australia, New Zealand and the UK.
Nauru became independent in 1968. Its relatively early independence within the Pacific stemmed from the possibility of it developing its phosphate resources to enable sustainable development. At the time of independence, the country had the second-highest GDP-per-capita in the world, after Saudi Arabia. But the wealth was both squandered and left a harsh legacy: when the mining ended, approximately 80 per cent of the island had been strip-mined and unemployment reached 90 per cent.
Nauru has a single parliament of 19 seats. Phosphate mining gave Nauru a very high national income, though unevenly distributed, a massive dependence on imported goods (including food and, occasionally, water), the largest proportion of migrant workers in the Pacific region and serious health and environmental problems. The effective closure of the phosphate mine in 2005 occurred at the same time as the collapse of government administration, an extreme example of the ‘resource curse’. Migrant workers were repatriated only with Taiwanese financial assistance.
Nauruans dominate government employment but Asians dominate the small private sector. The government has opposed the migration of families, provided low wages for all expatriate workers, discouraged long-term residence (to the extent that only those born of Nauruans, or of Nauruans and other Pacific Islanders may become citizens) and offered poor conditions of employment, matters of concern in the countries of migrant origin. Some governments discouraged their citizens from taking up employment on Nauru. However, this era has now ended as Nauru has reverted towards a subsistence economy.
Australia’s 2001 ‘Pacific solution’ anti-refugee policy saw it re-interpret its territorial dimensions to avoid responsibilities over intakes of refugees arriving by ship by establishing ‘clearing houses’, or rather detention centres, on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island to keep refugees away from the Australian mainland. Although the controversial policy was suspended in 2008, it recommenced in 2012. According to June 2017 statistics, 447 refugees and asylum-seekers were being held in the detention centre on Nauru with several hundred more living in the community. The Nauru government has said that no refugees will be allowed to stay for more than five years.
In February 2013, a constitutional crisis developed in Nauru. Following the dissolution of two successive parliaments, elections were finally held in June, where former Minister for Health and Education, Baron Waqa, was elected President. He was reelected in 2016.
Updated January 2018