Former ABF Commissioner publishes diary of Nauru visit

Roman Quaedvlieg writes about his time visiting refugee processing centres, but is it too little, too late?

Collage of images from Nauru


Australia has a deep and fairly one-sided relationship with the island state Nauru, our ‘broke, barren, and beholden’ neighbour. For more than fifteen years, the Australian government has used the island for ‘offshore processing’ and mandatory detention of asylum-seekers who arrive by boat.

It is policy that has withstood governments of both major political parties. But what are our leaders exposed to when they visit? Former Australian Border Force commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg has shared,via Twitter, a diary, titled ‘24 Hours In Nauru’. 

After losing his role, the former commissioner has become an active figure on Twitter, engaging in political debates about Australian immigration policy and broader #AusPol topics of discussion. Previously, Mr Quaedvlieg has conceded that the ABF, under his command, “obstructed and thwarted” medical transfers from the island. Mr Quaedvlieg has given Honi permission to publish the piece, from which select excerpts appear below. It confirms, for the most part, that Australian officials are aware at the highest level of the living conditions and struggles of daily life for those under their detention.

The Tour

Quaedvlieg begins with a tour of the island. Opposite one of their scheduled stops, a common scene breaks. Local sources told The Guardian that they fear a ‘contagion’ of detained children self-harming.

… in one of the Anibare Bay unit blocks a refugee woman had just tried to immolate herself with cooking kerosene. The local ambulance was in attendance and a crowd had collected at the front of the complex. A local in an olive coloured security uniform was officiously, but unnecessarily, reshaping the crowd from a long-stretched line along the footpath to a tight swarm spilling dangerously onto the roadway. The ambulance lumbered off lazily in the direction of the Nauru Hospital, which coincidentally was our next stop.

The Guardian reports that the Nauru Hospital is considered ‘not safe’ by the Australian government’s own health contractor, International Health and Medical Services.

…The hospital was in veritable ruin. It looked ramshackle and rickety, with neglected grounds. The roof had partially collapsed and sheets of what looked like asbestos were conspicuous in their angularity. The interior was tidy and had a sense of bustle, but the absence of that familiarly disconcerting, but simultaneously comforting, sterility of a hospital was palpable.

…three older women lay in beds in a type of makeshift respiratory ward, dressed in loose fitting gowns, variously attached to breathing apparatuses, the central core of which were small cylinders with clumps of attached hoses. Their wheezing was largely drowned out by the primal screams emanating from the surgical ward where medical staff were treating the burns victim just brought in.

I calculated that it had been at least 15 minutes from the time I had seen her carted away in the ambulance and I wondered why morphine or similar had not yet been administered to relieve her pain. I learned later that her burns were primarily on her legs and not life-threatening and I wondered if that was the reason she hadn’t received painkilling injections.

Touring the Refugee Processing Centres

The ABF commissioner is greeted by a plethora of guards from local security companies before the tour begins. In 2016, the Guardian reported that a guard was fired for posing with Pauline Hanson, while seven colleagues were demoted. Last year, two guards were detained after local authorities disagreed with a staffing decision. In ‘the Nauru Files’, the Guardian detailed guards being violent towards and sexually abusing child detainees.

As we toured ‘RPC1’ … I wasn’t learning anything new. I did learn that the processing centre was currently in transition from a detention facility to an ‘open camp’ where detainees could come and go as they pleased as long as they observed a nightly curfew.

…The single adult male compound was first. I instinctively switched into a state of hyper-alert as the first perceptions hit my senses, my sixth sense screaming. The atmosphere was dangerously reminiscent of the prisons I had been in.

…Someone half-whispered behind me, ‘we don’t allow free weights because they may horrific bludgeons’. Despite its lack of walls, the gym stank like the familiar stench of a prison which no amount of bleach or deodorant ever eliminates.

Quaedvlieg’s tour moves to the women’s compound:

The same languidness that lay like a pall over the men’s compound was also the clouding the women’s existence… I left the compound with an overwhelming sense of interminable waiting.

The family compound was memorable… Children of all ages roamed the compound, most but not all under the watchful, sometimes indolent, gaze of a parent in close proximity or from underneath tarpaulin sails offering shelter from the searing heat.

They tom-fooled, they shrieked and laughed, they were rambunctious, and they were insatiably curious.

And the tom-foolery was watched unwaveringly by uniformed male guards standing sentinel. I watched them watching and thought of mothers and children showering under surveillance.

And the shrieking and the laughing was temporarily unburdened by past trauma and the crippling stress of an uncertain future.

And their rambunctiousness was rewarded with jagged knee scrapes on the unforgiving compound sand, coral and flint stone; and rewarded with stern admonitions from the sentinels whose humour and countenance had worn wafer thin

And their insatiable curiosity was already being blunted by the numbing finiteness and the paltry stock of new things within their trapped existence.

Visiting Fly Camp

Fly Camp has been in place since at least 2014. Fifty men, processed and ‘certified’ as genuine refugees, were resettled at the Camp, some without their families.

As we left the detention facility for a scheduled meeting with Australia’s High Commissioner in his lofty colonial residence on the heights, I asked if we could make a brief detour into Fly Camp, an encampment set up outside of the detention facility as one of a number of village-style locations to accommodate those that had been granted refugee status. I noted a hesitancy in my guide’s response but at my insistence he agreed to take me to there.

…Fly Camp was jolting in its squalidness…my overall impression was reminiscent of the world’s slums which I have seen.

…Everywhere I walked I was approached by residents complaining about the quantity and quality of the food, the lack of air conditioning, the absence of employment opportunities, and fear about the minimal security against attacks on the camp, and its residents, by local gangs.


…I spotted an athletic Nauruan lad in a green khaki uniform and long blonde dreadlocks leaning against a perimeter fence…employed by the Australian OPC contractor… and was its dedicated liaison officer. I asked him about the attacks on the camp by locals and he smiled wryly as he told me of the provocations. I asked him about drugs in the camp and he asked me what I wanted and how much…he showed me an area off a slope at the edge of the camp where thousands of bottles and cans lay discarded. I asked him about prostitution and he pointed at three teenage Nauruan girls seated waiting on the other side of the road for me to leave.

My guide beckoned me away – the High Commissioner was waiting.

Why is it that our public officials, elected or, in the case of Mr Quaedvlieg, not, are exposed to the reality of our immigration policies, yet some often leave with the cynical view that these people are ‘faking’ or ‘milking’ their depravity of their living conditions in an attempt to get to Australia? Mr Quaedvlieg has admitted that his organisation hampered legitimate attempts for medical evacuations—would he have done the same for the woman in this story, having heard her screams in person?

Why did Quaedvlieg not publish this piece as ABF commissioner, at the time of his visit to Nauru? And why is he publishing it now?

We know what happens to refugees under Australian government policy. The facts are well established. Accounts like this, while in the public interest, lead to more questions than they could ever answer, and potentially, more than we shall ever receive.