Texts from Nauru

What does a mobile mean when it's your lifeline to the world outside?

Excerpt from cover art for the 2020 semester 2, week 10 edition by Lauren Lancaster. You can see the complete artwork on Issuu.

For K*, 2020 marks his 6th year living in Australia’s offshore detention facility on Nauru. K fled his home in 2013, at the age of 19 after being persecuted by authorities for alleged associations with a militant group, deemed a terrorist group by his government. K was a fisherman; he left school in year 7. He had no desire to be involved in insurgent activities – his mother used to hide him in the cupboard when members of the insurgent group would come searching for him to join their cause. One of his sisters lost her limbs in a bomb blast associated with the civil unrest.

He was out fishing one day when he got into an argument with another fisherman. That fisherman told the police that K was involved in terrorist activities. When he came into town later, someone he knew who was associated with the group had been publicly shot and killed by the police. They were sending a strong message to the village: “leave.” He was afraid he could be next despite his consistent attempts to avoid being embroiled in the conflict. He believed his life was under threat, so he decided to flee.

He got into contact with a people smuggler who got him on a boat to Australia. Eventually, he was taken to Nauru to be processed: 

For three and a half years I was in strict detention. I was not able to mix with other community members. After those three and a half years, I was able to mix and go out into the community and I could use a mobile phone to contact family and learn about what was going on in the outside world and follow the news. 

He recalls that in the early days, he felt like he was in prison. There would be hundreds of people lining up to use the phone each day, at best getting ten minutes to speak to their loved ones, if they picked up at all. 

Before I came as a refugee to Australia, I had a very high opinion of Australia – that we would have a better and good life without difficulties and I came with a lot of hope. But the Australian government has imprisoned us on this Nauru Island for many years and have pushed us into a very difficult situation against our will. We were only able to contact our families every 2-3 days and only for a maximum of 10 minutes. We had to wait in line for the whole night staying up till morning, and only after 7 or 8 hours could we talk to family members.

They were not allowed to cook their own food and were not allowed outside the compound, except on guard escorted excursions before being sent back to their rooms. The Australian government had an unequivocal message: if you came by boat, you would never be allowed to permanently resettle in Australia.

K is 26 now. The best part of his youth has been spent on the small island of Nauru, with great uncertainty as to his future. He describes feeling like his life has been on hold. Things have gotten better in recent years, he is now allowed out into Nauruan society and works odd jobs. He has a mobile phone to keep in touch with people. 

But earlier this year, some of the limited freedoms he has were put under threat by a proposed “Mobile Phone Ban Bill” put forward by the Coalition government. The purported premise of the Migration Amendment (Prohibiting Items in Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill was that mobile phones were facilitating criminal conduct like drug distribution, child exploitation material, extremist content and/or intimidation of detention staff. The Bill was a response to a 2018 Federal Court decision which ruled that confiscating mobile phones was unlawful without legislative backing.

In effect, it would mean refugees and asylum seekers in detention facilities, like K, could have their phones more easily confiscated by officers, as they could be deemed a ‘prohibited item’ at the discretion of the responsible Minister. The Bill also expanded powers for the Australian Border Force to conduct search and seizure without a warrant.

Yet civil society organisations contended that there was limited evidence that these powers were necessary, as the vast majority of those held in detention facilities do not use their phones inappropriately and moreover, there are existing mechanisms to enforce criminal law. These concerns were echoed by the Senate Standing Committee on the Scrutiny of Bills and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights.

Our phones are very important to us – to contact family, to learn about what’s happening, YouTube, watching movies for entertainment. It is a very important tool for refugees.

Access to the internet is now considered a human right by the United Nations. And for many, the ability to talk to people who speak their language, who are from their home or culture or to just generally have connection to the outside world is a lifeline. More practically, essential legal, political and medical support is often received via mobile phone, as it is quick, direct and private, unlike other internet facilities in detention centres.

I got into contact with K through my mum who was volunteering for Operation Not Forgotten, a project by non-profit organisation Canada Caring Society and MOSAIC, which help refugees apply for resettlement in Canada. Her language skills helped her to support K in filling out the detailed application forms required for resettlement. He shared his story with her over calls and texts on WhatsApp. There is still no guarantee that he will be accepted for resettlement.

In terms of my future, I have been in detention for too long as a refugee, they have forcibly locked us up. For us, it doesn’t matter which country but we need a permanent country to go to. We will be happy to go to a safe country.

K and my mum formed a sweet bond, he calls her “big sister” in our native tongue and they chat about their days, checking in from time to time. She describes him as a gracious, respectful and hardworking young man who doesn’t ask for much. Despite being from different countries, language proved to be a powerful connection between them. Yet in many of the largest diaspora communities in Australia there isn’t widespread solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers. Based on Australia’s skilled migration policies for the last few decades, there has been a marked disconnection between how those who have migrated from push factors and those for pull factors perceive themselves.

The Mobile Phone Ban Bill was passed by the House of Representatives but was fortunately defeated in the Senate after Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie cast the deciding vote against it. Senator Lambie based her decision to reject the Bill on an opinion poll she conducted on her website, which was shared across social media. 96% of the near 100,000 respondents were against the Bill. Some may laud Senator Lambie’s practice of ‘direct democracy,’ however, the fact that the basic freedom of refugees to communicate with the outside world was contingent on a glorified Facebook poll should be alarming.

It is well-documented that the mental and physical health conditions of asylum seekers in detention facilities are abhorrent — with multiple suicides over the past few years and findings that those in detention are 200 times more likely to self-harm than the broader Australian population. There are also reports of abuse and mistreatment at detention facilities. 

Yet even if there were adequate living conditions in these facilities, the idea of being trapped in limbo as a stateless person, unsure if you can ever properly work again, have a family or any other elements of a life of dignity are fundamentally cruel and reflect the Australian government’s systematic dehumanisation of refugees. There are still over 200 refugees left on Nauru and PNG, which is especially concerning when refugee issues only capture public attention for brief periods of time, usually after major crises.

I wish they will decide soon as 7-8 years has been too long to be forcibly detained without our family and loved ones. And with no decision yet to be made regarding our futures. It is a lonely life, a very difficult life and this life is not something I enjoy living. We just pray they will make a quick decision on our applications, as soon as possible. We live in hope that we will get a happy ending and soon the government will make a good decision. It is so lonely without my family here and I really hope I get a good decision soon, so I can be happy. That would make me so happy.

Ultimately, K deserves better. Policies by both Liberal and Labor governments have consistently threatened the ability of refugees to live meaningful lives. K, like all other people fleeing their homes, should not have to rely on mobile phones as their lifelines. Their futures should not be contingent on the goodwill of strangers. Until there are humane and generous policies for the resettlement of displaced people, the Australian government needs to be held responsible for its morally reprehensible and racist infliction of pain and suffering on those seeking safety, shelter and hope for a better life.

The author sincerely thanks K for sharing his story with her and Sangeetha Govindarajan for providing translations of conversations.