Nauru’s national air carrier is patriotically called “Our Airline”. But on its weekly flights to and from the island last Monday and Wednesday, there were more non-Nauruans on board than usual.
In the early hours of Monday, they were easy to spot at Brisbane airport: those for whom a change in Australian policy had directed their professional lives towards a dot in the Pacific Ocean. Australia is preparing to send its first group of asylum seekers to Nauru. It’s part of the government’s offshore processing programme aimed at trying to curb the number of people trying to get to Australia by boat.
On Nauru – a tiny place with a permanent population of just 10,000 – I saw the same faces again and again: at breakfast at the Menen, Nauru’s run-down but only hotel at The Bay – the one reasonable restaurant a few hundred metres down the road in and out of meetings at the government offices that hug the airport’s runway.
Where I didn’t see them was at the new Nauruan asylum-seeker processing centre being built in the island’s raised, rocky centre. That’s out of bounds to most – Al Jazeera was given special access to film. Those up there, Australian soldiers building the camp, have no need for Our Airline. They have their own planes – Hercules troop and cargo carriers are coming and going daily.
The camp though is the reason there are so many outsiders travelling to Nauru at the moment. They include officials from Australia’s Department of Immigration representatives of Toll a contractor that works to provide smooth supply chains to Australia’s military people from a flat-pack building provider a doctor from the company likely to provide emergency healthcare to any asylum seekers who get ill at camp a man who works for the International Organisation for Migration – liaising with Nauruan and Australian officials over the management of the camp.
And media – people like me.
It’s little wonder the Nauruans welcome the processing centre on their shores. Once open, it will provide jobs, and consolidate an important relationship with Australia – Nauru’s biggest donor. Already, though, it’s providing income: with its own cohort of professionals, asylum-seeker processing is an industry. Nauru now has a slice of the action.