- Weaponizing Ecocide: Nauru, Offshore Incarceration, and Environmental Crisis
The Pacific Solution (2001–2008) and Operation Sovereign Borders (2012–present) expanded Australia’s territorial and juridical borders through the establishment of three offshore regional processing centers in the Pacific nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea (Manus Island) and on Christmas Island (an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean). On Nauru, over two thousand asylum seekers and refugees were detained indefinitely in camps and temporary accommodations while resettlement claims were processed in Australia (Australian Border Force 2019; Phillips 2012). The offshoring of human detention constitutes one trajectory of Australia’s neocolonial operation across the Pacific region, a role that unfolds from a legacy of Commonwealth-driven extractive colonialism through the decimation of natural resources. While several of the essays in this collection unravel the ways that social and political relations in Papua New Guinea are impacted by the detention industry, this essay takes a geographical approach that centers human and nonhuman environments together to show how a history of resource grabbing and exploitation in Nauru is backlit by the contemporary imperial occupation of the island as a military and security site. This exploitation is made feasible by the nation’s precariousness within a nexus of geopolitical and ecological violence.
In order to understand the conditions faced by asylum seekers on Nauru, it is critical to investigate the wider socioenvironmental changes faced by the island’s Indigenous and nonindigenous populations. Reminiscent of the historical experiences of regional neighbors on Banaba (Teaiwa 2014), more than a century of strip mining by the Pacific Phosphate Company (Britain and Germany), the British Phosphate Commissioners (Britain, [End Page 492] Australia, and New Zealand), and, finally, the Nauru Phosphate Corporation or Republic of Nauru Phosphate has left most of the island uninhabitable and has forced Nauruans to adapt to resultant health, food, and ecological damages. Intersecting with this, the island’s location in the Pacific, its intensive exposure to climate-related hazards like heat, drought, coral bleaching, erosion, and sea-level rise and its limited economic capacity for adaptation all mark it as highly vulnerable (see Bino, this issue).
This essay draws on firsthand testimonies from Indigenous Nauruans and my own ethnographic field observations to outline the relationship between environmental, infrastructural, and economic risks and deterrence and incarceration. In late 2018, I was invited to Nauru by the Ministry for Commerce, Industry and Environment to speak with public servants, community leaders, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations about their climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. I documented observed changes to the island’s reefs, lagoons, and landscape, as well as community initiatives to address these changes. Drawing from this empirical evidence, I argue that environmental crises play a crucial role in an Australian regime of governance in which isolation, insecurity, and natural disaster are weaponized to constrain the possibilities for movement and settlement.
While at the time of writing there are no refugees still housed at the Nauru Regional Processing Centre, the experience of refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru has been, from numerous accounts, torturous. Multiple instances of self-harm, severe mental health crises, physical illnesses, and the death of both adults and children have been testified to by detainees and reported by medical staff. The Australian Medevac Bill, passed in early 2019 and repealed in late 2019, enabled the transfer of critically ill refugees and asylum seekers (and their families) to Australia for treatment. Other refugees and asylum seekers imprisoned on Nauru have either been returned to their country of origin or been resettled in Cambodia, the United States, or Canada (Australian Senate 2017). However, there has been no indication that the offshore system or its infrastructure will be permanently dismantled.
As such, infrastructure remains available for recommencement, a move that has precedent in the camp’s closure in 2008 and subsequent reopening in 2012 under Operation Sovereign Borders. Led by the Australian military, Operation Sovereign Borders was designed to deter and desist all arrivals by sea in order to, as the 2010 Liberal Party election slogan put it, “stop the boats” (Holmes and Fernandes 2012). Along with aggressively [End Page 493] defensive multilingual messaging and online multimedia information campaigns, naval boats were...