Nauru – A place bound by its past, haunted by its present and threatened by its future

Recently the tiny island of Nauru came into the spotlight through the Nauru files*, detailing the abuse of asylum seekers in the Australian immigration facilitation camp located on the island. It is an event that might seem to have little to do with development and climate change, but in fact, it has everything to with it.

Nauru bares the scars of its history, with incredible damages to its ecosystem and large parts of the island both unsuitable for cultivation as well as habitation. It has also found that it’s economic future has been inextricably linked with the old colonial master that once created the platform for the destruction of the Island, Australia.

Nauru, a protectorate of Australia between 1923 and 1966 was once on the richest islands in the Pacific. It is now also a prime example of the problematic relationship between unsustainable resource extractions by old colonial administrations; and how they in turn have created economic dependencies that make countries complicit in illegal practices that are sprung from repressive migration regimes.

The phosphate deposits found on Nauru catapulted Nauru into one of the richest countries per capita in the world. But, the mining, managed by Australia until 1967 and later by Nauru, depleted the islands resources with massive environmental damages. Its main sources of income now are the selling of fishing rights, offshore banking and aid from Australia, and it is here that the Nauru detention centre enters into the picture.

Nauru’s dependency on the economic gains of the detention facility makes it dependent on Australia continuing its gate-keeping practices when it comes to migrants. Before the temporary closure of the detention facility in 2007, it accounted for 20% of Nauru’s GDP, with Nauru officials voicing concerns of an economic crisis ensuing after its closure.

At the same time Nauru is part of the Alliance of Small Island States comprised of 44 members and very active in the fight against climate change. Nauru is well aware what a future awaits if the climate goals are not met (yet still, if they are met, the future of Nauru is in danger) and has long advocated a harder and more active stance to climate change.

Due to the mineral extraction, large parts of the island lack original forests, a small and flat island, making it more vulnerable to storms that are likely to increase due to climate change. The mineral extraction has also worsened costal erosion and the islands coral reef has experienced a diminishing production, the increasing ocean acidification will further this development, making the island even more vulnerable to the storms previously mentioned. This combined with the fact that it is a country a few metres above sea level, and sea levels expected to increase, the future is grim. The perils of the future is not lost on the Nauru leadership, meanwhile, its present is dependent on an ever-worsening world.

It is a depressing irony and bizarre example of the paradox of the international system that with the guaranteed increase of climate refugees in a region that will be hit extremely hard by climate change; Nauru’s economic future stands with this increase. At the same time, Nauru stands to be one of the countries hit hardest by climate change, setting it’s population up to become climate refugees themselves, the only question is which island they will be housed on, waiting for asylum.

/Daniel Silberstein

PhD International Relations, Stockholm University, Stockholm Graduate School of International Studies

* https://www.theguardian.com/news/series/nauru-files